SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Melanie Troncone had just been laid off from her job researching 401(k) retirement accounts when she saw a sign from the South Orange Rescue Squad that read: “The South Orange Rescue Squad wants you!” — an effort to bring more volunteers to the village’s ambulance company.
“I said, ‘Huh, maybe they do!’” Troncone said in a phone interview with the News-Record on July 22.
She’s been volunteering with the squad for the last 10 years, also spending time as its president. The squad, formed in 1952, now has more than 30 members who ride around the village when called to treat medical emergencies and transport patients to the hospital. Usually they only cover nights, but when the village ended its relationship with ambulance provider Americare on May 31, the rescue squad members stepped up, adjusted their schedules and began covering the town 24/7. EMTs are in the garage on Sloan Street all the time now, and will be for at least another month until the village’s bidding process to find a new provider ends in mid-August.
If a South Orange resident has to call 9-1-1 and the rescue squad is needed, all medical care and transport is free. The organization runs on donations and none of the members are paid. It costs approximately $70,000 to $80,000 a year to keep the ambulance running and pay for medical supplies and training, so the rescue squad is looking for donations as they head into the dog days of summer providing 24-hour service.
“Everything we do is free,” Troy Balog, the current squad president, said in a phone interview with the News-Record on July 19. “No medical care and no transportation is paid for by a patient. We have to pay for medical supplies and cost of operating.”
Squad members have to be prepared all the time since medical emergencies are unpredictable. Some days are slow but others have squad members out helping people a few times in a 12-hour shift.
“You can go 12 hours with five calls or none,” Balog said. “How long you’re there is not really a fair assessment. So we have to subsidize so we can be functional and free to help neighbors.”
Balog, like Troncone, did not have a medical background when he started volunteering as an EMT in high school. He still doesn’t; a financial planner, Balog went through the 225-hour EMT certification course, as most of the other rescue squad members did. Though Balog, Troncone and many other volunteers are not medical professionals in their daily lives, some are nurses, medical students and others who work in the medical field.
Troncone said the bare minimum the squad requires of a volunteer is CPR certification; after six months they suggest taking the EMT certification course. Seton Hall University students make up a number of volunteers, as well as Columbia High School students who are part of the cadet program. Students younger than 18 years old spend six to seven hours per week with the squad after taking a six- to seven-week training program.
When an ambulance goes out on a call, at least two EMTs must be on it, but Troncone said that, with the number of volunteers the squad has these days, usually three or four people will be riding.
“I ride with an incredible squad,” she said. “They have so much compassion, which is something that is lacking these days. If we get a call from an elderly person and it turns out they’re kind of lonely, with more people we can have someone sit in the back with them and hold their hand, comfort them.”
According to Balog, when a resident calls 9-1-1, the call goes to the South Orange Police Station. The dispatcher sends a police car and the ambulance if necessary, and the fire department, if needed as well. The three units work together at a scene, doing their own jobs while also making sure the others are covered. The rescue squad also covers mutual aid in surrounding towns when their first responders are out on a call.
The rescue squad was honored at the South Orange Board of Trustees’ July 8 meeting with a proclamation, and the squad’s recent efforts were highlighted by the BOT and Capt. Scott Egelberg.
“Under the leadership of Capt. Scott Egelberg and 30 volunteer members, services have been performed by the rescue squad without complaint or delay,” Trustee Donna Coallier said at the meeting. “The South Orange Rescue Squad is a vital and irreplaceable part of the township of South Orange Village’s public safety, the management teams and village administrators. The governing body would be remiss in our duties if we did not recognize their amazing and outstanding contributions to the rest of our community.”
Egelberg gave credit to the squad members, saying they stepped up when the town needed them and will continue to do so while on duty 24/7.
“It’s not been easy doing daytime coverage but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from it, it is that our members are more dedicated than you can ever imagine,” he said. “It just shows how much they truly love South Orange and this great town we live in.”
Village President Sheena Collum, who said at the meeting that she has been helped by the rescue squad personally, added to the praise, saying the volunteers are an invaluable part of the village.
“It’s very important for residents to understand what level of dedication these volunteers provide as a service to South Orange,” Collum said. “We have an incredible team that, year after year, is able to recruit new talent and they operate off of a shoestring budget. I’ve never doubted their ability to recruit and make sure that leadership is in place. You are an incredible, true asset to this town.”
In 10 years of 12-hour shifts, Troncone has been on a lot of ambulance rides. One stands out though, and she told the story of a time she delivered a baby in the back of the ambulance near SHU.
“We were heading toward Seton Hall as fast as possible, and we were ready to go to the hospital when I said ‘We can’t move this ambulance.’ So the mother had a baby boy in the back of Ambulance 33. It was delightfully disgusting,” Troncone said with a laugh.
Stories like Troncone’s are made possible by the rescue squad’s ability to operate at all. The members have been asking for donations, and Balog said that while the 24/7 volunteer coverage is temporary, the organization is not.
“We’re happy to do it, but it’s a lot,” he said. “We run entirely on donations; we don’t take taxpayer money.”
For information about the South Orange Rescue Squad and how to support it, visit www.southorangerescuesquad.org/contribute.
“A lot of people have stepped up,” Troncone said. “We have not missed a call, and we’ve taken a few. We’ve had everything covered. I’ve been proud of us.”
Photos Courtesy of Troy Balog and SORS