by Richard Creaser
copyright the Chronicle 11-14-2012
GLOVER — It was not the sort of homecoming that Dennis Gibson would have chosen as he returned to New Jersey last week, but the importance of that trip outweighed any concerns he may have had.
Mr. Gibson, along with fellow Glover Ambulance squad member Chance Griffin, traveled to the Jersey Shore to provide aid to communities battered by the passage of Hurricane Sandy. The two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) were part of the seven-ambulance Vermont Strike Team that deployed on the evening of November 6 to some of the worst damaged New Jersey communities.
The primary role of the squad was to provide relief to emergency crews that had been operating flat-out since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 30. The professionalism of their fellow EMTs left a powerful impression on Mr. Griffin.
“They acted as if nothing had happened,” Mr. Griffin told the Chronicle on Tuesday. “They went in and did their jobs as if their houses weren’t destroyed. Some of them were living in the fire station because they didn’t have a home to go back to.”
Even amidst the destruction the Glover EMTs were shown every conceivable courtesy and kindness. The level of appreciation extended by fellow emergency service providers and patients alike had a profound effect on both men.
“It’s not every day that you have people come up to you and say thank you for what you’re doing,” Mr. Gibson said. “Everyone there was just so grateful and appreciative of us.”
The Glover squad traveled to New Jersey and arrived first at the Meadowlands complex. The Meadowlands served as the main staging area for arriving emergency service crews. From there crews were assigned to various communities that required their assistance. During the five-day mission the Glover squad operated out of Keansburg and Atlantic Highlands, both located along the famed Jersey Shore.
The extent of the devastation that greeted them was both shocking and saddening. During their stay, the men toured affected areas including a brief visit to nearby Seabright.
“It’s just amazing the amount of damage a 12-hour storm can do,” Mr. Gibson said. “It will take Seabright probably five to ten years to get back to what it was. It was just incredible.”
Though fears of looting immediately followed the passage of Hurricane Sandy, the establishment of law and order in its wake helped prevent a repeat of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Gibson said. There was a strong police presence in every community. Deployments of National Guardsmen added to the sense of security in the affected areas.
“When we pulled up to the school where we were staying there were National Guardsmen and an armored car parked in the driveway,” Mr. Gibson said. “They wanted to know who you were and what you were doing there before they let anyone through. They learned from Katrina.”
During their deployment, the Glover crew handled the kinds of 911 calls they might expect to handle back home in Glover. The major difference lay in the sheer volume of calls.
“One town we went into was maybe a square mile and that volunteer department handles 2,600 calls a year,” Mr. Griffin said.
“With Glover you handle 300 to 400 calls and you don’t see too many members riding on all of them,” Mr. Gibson said. “A crew we met out of Baltimore said they handled 8,000 calls a year. You just don’t see that kind of volume here.”
What took some getting used to was navigating traffic as the crew transported patients to and from the hospital. Though the physical distances were not as great as those the crew is used to, the time necessary to travel those distances remained comparable, Mr. Griffin said.
“The amount of juking and jiving you need to do getting around in traffic was unlike anything we do back here,” Mr. Gibson said. “The worse thing we have to do here is get through that one light at Sias Avenue in Newport.”
Another big difference was how the visiting ambulance teams communicated with one another. Because there were so many ambulances from so many squads, reconfiguring radios to ensure continued coverage was impractical. Instead, units relied on cell phones and texting to communicate with one another and their respective headquarters.
“Chance really stepped up on this because I’m a bit of an old-timer when it comes to this kind of stuff,” Mr. Gibson said. “I had never sent a single text before April of this year and now I’ve sent hundreds. I really learned a new appreciation for how well that can work in an emergency situation.”
Both men also spoke of the overwhelming feeling of pride when the departing ambulance squads formed up to leave the Jersey Shore. The departing ambulances were accompanied by dozens of emergency service vehicles from multiple departments with their lights flashing.
“It’s not something you’ll ever forget,” Mr. Griffin said.
“Everywhere we went people came out to stand by the road and wave and holler their thanks,” Mr. Gibson said. “You don’t normally get that kind of response for doing the job you’ve been trained to do.”
What made the entire trip possible was the strong sense of cooperation and fellowship both within the Glover Ambulance Squad and between the state of Vermont and the state of New Jersey. The first request for assistance came out of New Jersey at 11 a.m. on November 6 requesting up to 25 ambulances and crews. By 5 p.m. New Jersey had adjusted the request to include as many ambulances as could be ready to roll as quickly as possible, Glover Ambulance Chief Adam Heuslein said.
“By 6 o’clock we had the bus packed and rolling,” Mr. Heuslein said. “It was the first big test for our new ambulance.”
Mr. Heuslein extended a warm thanks to Northeast Kingdom Balsam and Windshield World for permitting Mr. Gibson and Mr. Griffin time off to deploy to the Jersey Shore. The cooperation of employers is a critical component to the smooth operation of a volunteer service like Glover Ambulance, he said.
“I would also like to thank the other members of Glover Ambulance for stepping up and covering the shifts for Chance and Dennis allowing them to go,” Mr. Heuslein said. “It was because of their efforts that we were able to maintain coverage and let Chance and Dennis go down to New Jersey. At no point was the town of Glover without ambulance coverage. It really was a team effort.”
The dedication of their fellow EMTs and the bonds Mr. Gibson and Mr. Griffin formed with them has left the men with an urge to provide as much help as they can. As a result the Glover Ambulance Squad is exploring the possibility of hosting a fund-raising effort to benefit the EMTs and communities hit by the storm.
“A lot of these guys and their families lost everything,” Mr. Heuslein said. “So we want to try and help them out even as they help the other people in their community.”
The experience that the two men are bringing home is an invaluable one for both the squad and Vermont’s emergency responders, Mr. Heuslein said. It was the first real test of Vermont’s Strike Team system developed by the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Emergency Management.
“For something that sat on a back shelf since Katrina and with changes in administration in between, the system worked really well,” Mr. Heuslein said. “This experience makes the Strike Team system better and our own squad better for being a part of it.”
contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]