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Boro squad marks 50 years of helping neighbors in need

Fifty years ago, the Florham Park Memorial First Aid Squad ambulance was late for its own dedication ceremony.

After four months of organizing, recruiting, training and raising funds for emergency equipment, the squad was finally in service that Memorial Day in 1951. Twenty minutes before the festivities, the fledgling squad received its very first call, believed to be from Dr. John Hopping in East Hanover.

More than 23,000 calls later, the squad celebrated its golden anniversary with a ceremony on Memorial Day, May 28, 2001, at the squad headquarters. More than 200 people attended the annual rededication of the squad as a living memorial to veterans "who served or gave their all in our defense."

Place in the borough's past

The history of the squad is entwined with the lives of Florham Park and its residents. The squad was present to deliver babies in 1973, 1980 and 1998, that last infant in the ambulance en route to the Saint Barnabas Medical Center. Sadly, crews have been with many borough residents and workers through their illnesses or deaths.

The squad responded to a multitude of accidents. It responded to motor vehicle collisions, fires and plane crashes, and treated victims of crimes. It stood at the ready during parades, gazebo concerts, football games and graduations.

Hundreds of borough residents served; from those with no medical training when they joined to medical professionals. The experience changed their lives. Four squad members became doctors and many more became nurses, physician assistants, paramedics or emergency room technicians.

Squad members became mayor, borough council members, police chief and police officers. Some were local business people, such as Stan Beck, a pharmacist who served for more than 28 years while operating a pharmacy.

Members ranged in age from 16 to senior citizens. They included husbands and wives, parents and children and brothers and sisters. Many put in decades of service, including two women who hold the record for longevity: Joelyn Hoferer and Marie Northridge joined together in 1963 and are still active members. Molly Backer joined the squad in 1951 and served 37 years as an active member and continued to participate on the auxiliary until her retirement in 2001.

As the borough grew from a population of 2,350 people in 1950 to 8,857 in 2000, so did the demands on the squad. Calls numbered 58 in the first year. In 2000, there were 962 calls for help.

Local trips to hospitals have racked up more than 350,000 miles on a total of 14 ambulances. The squad expanded to owning two rigs in 1974.

Over the years, the level of training required greatly increased. Early members had only a few hours of training. Today, each crew has at least one emergency medical technician (EMT) with at least 110 hours in the classroom.

For 50 years, the squad has provided its services free-of-charge, relying primarily upon donations from residents and businesses to cover its annual operating expenses. Last year, more than half of the households in the borough contributed. In 1951, the squad asked for $1 per person. Fifty years later, the request is $25 per household.

In the beginning

First aid squads were a relatively novel idea in 1951 -- there were only 130 in the state. For transportation to the hospital, Florham Park residents relied on family members or an ambulance from the Madison Red Cross, which operated only during weekday business hours. Doctors still made house calls.

Chatham's fire department provided first aid services starting in 1936, but its independent emergency squad did not exist until 1951. Madison formed its ambulance corps in 1954. Florham Park covered East Hanover until 1956.

After considering providing first aid services itself, the Florham Park Volunteer Fire Department decided to form the squad as a separate non-profit corporation at a meeting on January 15, 1951. With the fire department as sponsor, firemen initially served as advisors and trustees.

Frank Eaton is considered to be the father of the squad. A past president of Fire Company No. 1, he was the squad's president for the first three years and later served as captain. Eaton went on to become president of the New Jersey State First Aid Council in 1957 and 1958. He also traveled the state as Educational Director of First Aid.

Starting from scratch, the founders built an operating first aid squad in less than four months. The group's first ambulance was purchased in April 1951 for $833. The used 1938 LaSalle required extensive work, including replacing electrical wiring and a valve job on the engine. In comparison, the squad's newest ambulance, a 2000 Ford E-350 Braun Raider, was built to squad specifications and purchased new for $103,882.

Following the purchase of the LaSalle ambulance, the squad lacked an estimated $1,000 in necessary emergency equipment. It began operations as a transportation unit until later that year when it could purchase an oxygen system, a wheeled cot and other supplies.

Before 911

It is taken for granted today that a call to 911 will yield help, yet Florham Park did not acquire that service until the early 1990s.

In 1951, a local storekeeper, Carmen Kursino, took calls during the day and the police department answered at night. In 1955, an answering service in Madison dispatched calls. A dispatcher would individually contact crew members by telephone, who had stay at home and off the phone. Few families had two cars in the 1950s, so the ambulance would pick up the crew on the way to the call.

In 1965, calls began to be broadcast to squad members over radio receivers called Plectrons. They were replaced by battery-operated units finally allowed the crew to travel freely around town. The squad currently uses the Minitor II, which is the size of a pager.

In 1979, the squad began working with paramedics in Mobile Intensive Care Units. These professionals provide advanced life support, such as cardiac monitors, medications, intubations and blood tests. Paramedics now routinely respond to serious calls involving cardiac problems, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness and severe trauma. They worked with the squad on one-third of all calls in 2000.

Opportunities for women

To staff the weekday shifts, Florham Park became one of the first squads in the state to allow women to join, according to Molly Backer who joined in 1951 initially to drive the ambulance. During her 37 years she served as captain and crew chief.

An article in the Newark Sunday News from October 2, 1955, reflected the attitudes of the day, describing how the 15 women volunteers "may have to drop their brooms, forsake the washing or leave the dishes to rush to the squad headquarters" to answer a call.

Margaret Jewell became the first female captain in 1956. Today women comprise more than half of the active members and many seats on the executive board.

Collins Building

The ambulance was initially kept in the Brooklake firehouse, located on Broadway at the site of the current Company No. 2 firehouse. In late 1952, however, the fire department decided to purchase another fire truck, forcing the squad to find its own home.

The squad moved next door, purchasing a garage on February 20, 1953. The building was dedicated in honor of the late Capt. C. Howard Collins on Memorial Day 1953. Collins had received five battle stars for his five years in the U.S. Army, which included fighting in the Normandy Landing and the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, Collins lived in Florham Park and became the borough's building inspector in 1947 and built homes in town until his death from stomach cancer in 1951.

Collins' widow Lillian Morris sold the building to the squad for the discounted price of $3,500. The squad put down only $500 cash, taking out a $2,500 bank mortgage and giving Morris a note for the rest. It took the squad eight years to pay off the loans. The building would serve as the squad's headquarters for the next 14 years.

Felch Road

In 1964, the borough suggested that the squad swap its building on Broadway for land on Felch Road. After much negotiation and planning, the closing on the properties took place on October 20, 1966, and construction rapidly began on the present squad building. It cost approximately $40,000, requiring the squad to obtain a $30,000 mortgage to pay for the construction.

Squad member Charles Norton served as building chairman. Florham Park contractors were used on the job. Architect John Overtoom designed the building to fit in with the residential neighborhood. Squad members did some of the finishing work themselves. Local businesses donated furnishings, including a stove, drapes, lights, desks and chairs.

The squad moved its operations to the building in March 1967 and it was officially dedicated that Memorial Day.

Since that time, the squad has continued to update equipment and training to keep up with advances in emergency care and the increased volume of calls. Fundamentally, the work remains the same, however. They are still the primary providers of first aid care to borough residents and workers. Similarly, like that first call on Memorial Day in 1951, sometimes plans are delayed or derailed: Calls can still happen at the most inopportune time.

The above article was written by David Paige, vice president of the first aid squad. It originally appeared in the Florham Park Eagle for Memorial Day 2001.