called to serve
Photos by Shelby Lum and Althea Olinger
The make-do, early months of the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad were more ad hoc than sophisticated.
Rejected for membership in a local first-aid crew, the four students who founded the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad (VTRS) had to persuade multiple layers of administration, including University Council (UC), to approve them as a student organization. While mounting a letter-writing campaign to UC members in May 1970, the four cruised campus during the unrest over Vietnam, putting out fires and helping anybody who needed aid.
In fall 1970, squad founders had no other members, no money, and no headquarters, so they recruited and trained the first cadre. Members drove their own cars to calls and were not allowed to transport patients. (It would take two years of determined lobbying to procure that first ambulance.) Cooperation with other area squads was minimal.
In 1971, denied permission to sleep or store equipment in their “own room” at 342 Squires Student Center, rescue squad members often stashed first-aid kits and other paraphernalia above ceiling tiles and discreetly napped behind closed doors, according to Bob Smallwood (biology ’73), one of the squad’s founders.
Now, 48 years after Smallwood, Thomas Spain, Wayne Modena (industrial engineering and operations research ’73), and Richard Paul (management ’73) conceived the idea, VTRS is thought to be the oldest student-run, all-volunteer collegiate rescue squad in the nation—and a fully equipped advanced life support agency with three ambulances and a total of seven vehicles.
The squad’s 40 to 50 members respond to an average of 1,200 calls a year, staff nearly every major event on campus, run educational programs for students and the community, and maintain all automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) on campus. Not only do the members regularly garner national awards and recognition during drills and competitions, they earned respect for their response during the April 16, 2007, tragedy.
“I’ve been in awe of what we as a group have achieved,” Smallwood said. “It’s so good to see that the university has acknowledged how special the squad is.”
Students who choose to join the rescue squad share a collective experience that sets them apart. “They’re generally more mature than average students. They’re incredibly professional—incredible people,” said Richard Hirsh, a history professor who has been the faculty representative to the squad and an associate member since 1988. “The rescue squad is the epitome of Ut Prosim and community service at Virginia Tech.”
For those not already focused on a career in health services, membership may also lead to unexpected career paths. Rescue squad members frequently find themselves “funneling” toward medical, military, or public safety fields, according to Michael Geary, current chief of the squad and a wildlife conservation major who is leaning toward such a role after he graduates in 2019.
Building brotherhood and sisterhood
People who describe the rescue squad’s culture and camaraderie liken the experience to being part of a large, extended family. Members eat, sleep, and train in a cozy station in an old mail room in the Military Building’s basement, and they support each other on what can be high-stress emergency calls.
“It’s very much a brotherhood and a sisterhood … those relationships are for a lifetime,” said Jim Key (education ’97), who chose to attend Tech for computer science, but changed course after joining the squad. Now a fire/EMS battalion chief in Prince George’s County, Maryland, he said, “It’s [VTRS] where I cut my teeth.”
When Nick Mattheisen (interdisciplinary studies ’11) was training for the squad, his probate class was assigned to write an essay on one of the Pylons. “I picked Brotherhood,” said Mattheisen, who is business development manager for Carilion Clinic Life-Guard in Roanoke and is a volunteer medic on the Vinton (Virginia) First Aid Crew. “I still think about how much Brotherhood and Ut Prosim go together … to know that you can count on one another to get through tough times.”
The rescue squad recruits each semester as members graduate. According to Geary, the group receives about 200 applications to fill between five and 15 spots. Not everyone has prior experience. Successful candidates are well-rounded with diverse backgrounds. “It’s very selective,” Hirsh said.
Once accepted, new members begin emergency medical technician training at the basic level (EMT-B). Although EMT-Bs can handle 95 percent of the squad’s calls, Geary said, quite a few elect to train further, earning EMT advanced, paramedic, or advanced life support certification.
Required to serve a minimum of one night per week, members may average 20 hours a week, while officers log more like 35 to 40, Geary said. The squad covers all home football and basketball games, ACC baseball and softball games, and any large event.
“The Virginia Tech Rescue Squad members don’t go to football games; they work football games,” Key said. “And they don’t always get to go home for breaks” because the station is fully staffed every day of the year.
VTRS also “prides itself in being a training agency,” Geary said. Squad members who staff the station each night also participate in one hour of related training. As a result, the group is always a strong competitor at the National Collegiate Emergency Medical Foundation Services conference. This past year, the Tech squad earned first place in basic life support skills and mass casualty incident skills and second in advanced life support skills. “911 doesn’t take a break, and so it is important to stay ahead of the curve,” said Geary.
Mock DUI: Members of the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad and other fire and rescue teams participated in a simulated crash demonstration to raise awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.
Smallwood, Modena, Paul, and Spain each had rescue squad experience in their Virginia home communities before they came to Tech. All wanted to continue their service, and they were further convinced of the need for a campus rescue organization when, in fall 1969, nearly 45 minutes passed before emergency personnel were able to reach a student injured playing flag football on the Drillfield, Smallwood said.
Once approved by UC as a student organization, the group was awarded a $2,700 budget and a space in 320 Squires. Today, that allocation totals about $160,000, supported in part by student fees and contributions.
Over time, the foursome recruited more members; requisitioned a backboard from a local lumber company; and printed 10,000 green stickers advertising their hours—5:30 p.m. to midnight. “We worked largely the residential side of campus,” Smallwood said.
That first class of recruits included future fire chiefs, EMS directors, and three physicians. Another early member, Cassandra “Sandy” Jones (marketing, housing, and family development ’72), was the first female ambulance driver on the squad. She is also Smallwood’s wife.
After graduation, Smallwood went on to serve in various biomedical engineering roles, including working on a team that developed the first home glucose monitor, the Glucometer, for diabetes. “I’m now using an insulin pump and using a meter from that same company,” Smallwood said.
During a trauma drill, rescue squad members transfer a patient to a medical helicopter for transport.
Over the course of its history, the squad has negotiated some rough patches, including avoiding a closure in 1973 by becoming a unit of the Blacksburg First Aid Crew (BFAC). Back on its own in 1980, VTRS began running shock-trauma calls and graduated its first cardiac technicians. In 2000, the squad received the Governor’s Award for Outstanding EMS Agency in the commonwealth.
Through the years, the squad has been bolstered by the support of the VTRS Life Member and Alumni Association, which numbers more than 250 life members.
Never was that support more apparent—or needed—than in the days following April 16, 2007.
“The Hokie Nation came together, and the rescue squad nation came together. … It grew the rescue squad as an organization, as tragic as it was,” said Key, who traveled from Maryland to Blacksburg following April 16 to support the squad.
That reaction to the campus tragedy sums up why Geary chose to invest the hard work and sacrifice necessary to become chief during the spring of his sophomore year.
“The squad is where I found my family away from home,” Geary said. “As for the university, the rescue squad is an invaluable resource for students, faculty, and anyone who wishes to visit Virginia Tech’s campus.”
Juliet Crichton is the web manager for the Office of Communications and Marketing in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Justice Smith, a junior majoring in multimedia journalism, was a summer intern with Virginia Tech Magazine.