A day in the life of ambulance volunteers
By Meghan Byers
SPARTA — “It’s not like the TV shows,” Jeff Hookway said, standing in front of the two ambulances parked in the garage of the Sparta Ambulance building. “It’s not always life or death. A lot of it is about holding somebody’s hand and taking them up to the hospital.”
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Jeff and Mary Hookway, a married couple from Lafayette who are longtime volunteers with the Ambulance Squad, were covering the afternoon shift. The Sparta Ambulance Squad, which was founded in 1947 by V.F.W. members, is “fairly unique” according to Jeff Hookway, in that it makes use of “hybrid squads” of both paid Emergency Medical Technicians and volunteers.
From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, paid EMTs respond to calls. All other shifts – weekends and overnights – are staffed entirely by volunteers like the Hookways.
Many of those volunteers are high school students, between the ages of 16 and 18, taking part in the Sparta Ambulance Squad’s cadet program. In fact, the program has been so successful in recent years that the squad is currently at its limit of 25 cadets.
“Technically there’s a waiting list,” said Jeff Hookway, who also said that most of the cadets are already active in the community in some way, whether that’s through volunteering, sports, or other activities. The lounge area in the upstairs floor of the ambulance building contains couches, blankets, and a television, but Hookway said that the cadets mostly use it to work on their homework.
Hookway himself got his start in public service at a young age, following in the footsteps of his mother, who taught first aid classes right in their living room in Morristown – with a little demonstration help from her son. “I was the guinea pig patient,” Jeff said, smiling.
When they moved to the Sussex County area, Jeff and his mother both joined the Sparta Ambulance Squad. Jeff, who is a certified EMT, has now been a volunteer for 42 years. He’s served as squad captain, treasurer, trustee, and chief financial officer in the past, and currently is crew chief.
Mary Hookway, also an EMT, met her husband in 1986 when he was captain of the ambulance squad. They were married a year later, and Mary managed to work two jobs while going to school at night to become an EMT. She’s been a member of the Sparta Ambulance Squad for nearly thirty years and previously served as the public relations chairperson.
Between herself, Jeff, and his mother, “one of us would always be on call,” Mary said. “On holidays somebody would always be jumping up from a meal. It’s demanding; there’s a lot to it.”
For the Hookways, however, being able to help others makes the long nights and the unpredictable hours worthwhile. “It’s not something to go into if you don’t like helping people,” said Mary.
Every now and then the conversation paused as radio dispatches came in. Jeff said it was something he told the cadets they’d get used to – not just pausing in the middle of conversations, but also listening carefully for the dispatcher’s tone of voice.
“You can tell sometimes by their tone if we’re needed,” he said.
At 1:43 PM, they were, and the Hookways headed out on the call with a practiced sense of purpose.
“You’re going to someone’s home on what might be the worst day of their life, and you walk in and they’re so glad to see you,” said Mary. “Regardless of what’s going on in our hearts or our minds, we’re giving them the gift of expert help, of someone else being in charge.”
“That’s the most rewarding thing about it,” she said. “But it’s also the most challenging thing. Witnessing people’s pain, their mental anguish, their physical pain, it takes a toll. It’s not without effect.”
One of the more memorable calls that the Hookways have been on came on Sept. 11, 2001, when the Sparta Ambulance Squad was among the emergency responders sent to Liberty State Park. The Hookways stayed until 10 PM that night as people poured out of New York City, but never saw a patient.
“After 9/11, there was a whole different mindset on security,” said Mary, pointing out, for example, that the keys to the ambulances used to be left inside the vehicles. Now, they’re locked up inside the building.
Over the years there have been plenty of other changes to procedure and technology.
“When I started, there was only one MediVac helicopter in the area,” Mary Hookway said. “Now there are three, and one right in Mount Olive.” MediVac helicopters can be vital for quickly transporting patients in critical condition.
“There’s something called the ‘golden hour,’” said Jeff, explaining that a trauma patient should be in emergency care in less than an hour. Under ideal conditions, he said, it takes at least an hour to get a patient to Newton Hospital by ambulance.
The Ambulance Squad has continued to adapt to meet modern challenges, from offering its members training in how to deal with active shooter situations, to carrying Narcan, to investing in a whole building generator in case of power outages like those that occurred during Hurricane Sandy. It’s also currently in the process of replacing one of its three active ambulances, which are typically replaced every ten years.
“There are more requirements for training, and continuing education,” said Mary. EMT training includes 220 hours of classroom training, ten hours of on-the-job experience, and recertification every three years. The Sparta Ambulance Squad reimburses members for the cost of EMT certifications upon their successful completion.
Right now, one of the biggest challenges the squad faces is simply finding volunteers to fill overnight shifts and staff ambulances for bigger events or incidents. The squad began using paid employees for weekly daytime shifts about five years ago, which meant that they had to begin billing insurance companies as well.
They have also managed to raise funds and establish the SAS building as a sort of community center by renting an upstairs room to local organizations, playing host to everything from church services to yoga classes.
Meanwhile, the squad runs frequent training classes downstairs for members and other emergency services personnel. That Sunday, EMT and squad member Cliff Cernek was teaching a CPR class to volunteer firefighters.
“We have a very good working relationship with the fire department and the police department,” said Jeff. “We’ve always cooperated well with them.”
According to its officers, the Sparta Ambulance Squad typically responds to anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 calls per year, and responded to a total of 1,358 calls in 2018.
Anyone interested in volunteering or becoming an EMT can go to spartaambulance.org to learn more and download a volunteer application.