A historical marker on Mohonk Road in High Falls notes an illustrious local name associated with the old brick schoolhouse located a short distance away, at 30 School Hill Road: naturalist John Burroughs, who briefly taught there as a young man in the mid-19th century. Visitors to that building quickly discover, however, that another, somewhat-less-famous Ulster County resident is more revered by those who utilize it. Her name was Harriet C. Weber, founder of the Marbletown First Aid Unit (MFAU); the historic building serves as its headquarters.
The story goes that Weber made it her mission to establish a rescue squad to serve the hamlet and its rural environs in 1958, when, to her horror, a hearse was the only vehicle available locally to transport her mother to a hospital during a sudden health emergency. So she began organizing volunteers, officially forming the MFAU in 1961. The squad’s first ambulance was a station wagon, its first driver the 14-year-old son of Weber’s best friend and first recruit, Emily Stokes.
Much has changed in the world of first responders since that time, and many of the improvements can be credited to the tireless advocacy of Weber herself. Not only must ambulance drivers be of legal age to hold a driver’s license, but emergency medical technicians must also undergo a rigorous training and certification process. After the first few years of “winging it,” Weber went on to train many EMTs throughout Ulster County. She also successfully lobbied at the state level for legislation mandating high, consistent standards for the people to whom we entrust our lives when medical disaster strikes, no matter where we live.
Harriet Weber, who died in 2001, is now regarded as the mother of modern emergency medical services in New York State. There’s a plaque honoring her at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, and the state Department of Health confers an annual EMS Leadership Award in her name. There’s a monument commemorating her contributions in front of MFAU headquarters as well. “Harriet helped move volunteer squads into being,” says Karen Pardini of High Falls, who has been working with the squad since 2003 and now serves as the group’s director. A retired midwife and herself a medical pioneer in the field of home births, she became acquainted with Weber in the 1970s, when Pardini first attained EMT certification. “She was very supportive, very energetic to get people into the field.”
But now, with its founder deceased, the group has to do its own recruiting: not an easy task for a not-for-profit, all-volunteer ambulance squad with one of the most widespread and thinly populated service areas in the county. MFAU covers the entire Town of Marbletown, including the hamlets of High Falls, Vly/Atwood, Lomontville, Cottekill and those parts of Rosendale and Accord that utilize the 12440 High Falls zip code. “We go all the way to the [Ashokan] Spillway,” says Pardini.
Moreover, unlike more densely populated towns that have consolidated “fire and rescue” operations, MFAU is not affiliated with any one particular fire district, but collaborates with eight of them. The group receives some annual funding from the Town of Marbletown, relying on fundraisers to augment its budget, and has to put some money aside each year into a fund so it can replace one of its two ambulances every 12 years or so.
Thus, community volunteerism is at the heart of MFAU’s continuing 24/7 availability. Pardini speaks proudly of her “good crew,” most of whom put in more than the required minimum of 24 hours of time on call per month, “because we’re needed.” Membership has remained steady, even growing in recent years, but not at the same pace as demand. In the past, she says, “We’d typically get about 500 calls a year, or 35 to 40 a month. Now we’re up to about 600 calls: 55 or 60 per month in the past year.”
Pardini attributes the spike in need to population increase: “There are more people in the community, more second homes, more retirees who are home all day long.” Besides the sorts of medical emergencies that tend to happen more often to the elderly, such as heart attacks and strokes, many calls involve trauma associated with outdoor work, such as chainsaw accidents, falls off ladders or allergic reactions to bee stings, she adds.
For the entirety of each four-hour shift on duty, MFAU members are expected to stay within town limits, not more than seven minutes away from the schoolhouse building and within earshot of a radio or pager, so that they know immediately when an emergency call comes in. “What it comes down to is commitment,” Pardini says. “The payoff is camaraderie and the gratification of community service,” adds EMT Beth Anderson, a retired financial professional who is also the group’s treasurer.
Fortunately, the schoolhouse has become a home-away-from-home for many of these dedicated volunteers. There’s a big kitchen with long dining table and a comfy sofa, a sitting room equipped with a giant-screen TV, a dormitory with bunkbeds. Many squad members spend the entirety of each shift on-site, cooking a meal or doing their laundry or watching a movie on Netflix when no calls come in. During big storms especially, they come prepared to stay overnight. Renovations are currently underway to create an even-larger living space on the ground level and training rooms on the second floor.
What’s required to become a member? Licensed drivers can start out their training by transporting an ambulance in a non-emergency situation, then graduate to driving one to the scene of a call. Certification comes at the third level, when a driver is permitted to perform a “whole call” with a patient in the vehicle. To become an EMT, one must take classes, but they are “offered all over the county,” Pardini explains, and paid for by New York State if you become a rescue squad member. “But that’s just the beginning of the training. We train them to be a squad leader, which can take a year or two. Until then they’re a ‘third,’” observing and assisting the EMT on duty. Once EMT certification is attained, an additional 72 hours of training annually are required to maintain it.
Although past MFAU volunteers have gone on to become paramedics and at least one a doctor, according to Pardini, the most reliable have typically not been young people setting out on a career, but more often the newly retired or new arrivals in the community who are looking to make a long-term commitment. People who want to join the Auxiliary and help out on a less ambitious scale are also welcome, however: The operation can use volunteers for an hour or two at a time to perform such tasks as inventorying supplies, washing the ambulances or planting flowers around the building. “You can take the garbage out or go all the way and become a squad leader,” notes Anderson.
Town residents wishing to know more about how to get involved with the Marbletown First Aid Unit are invited to call (845) 687-9847, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://marbletownrescue.com or www.facebook.com/marbletown-first-aid-unit.