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Built for community service, MREMS is 50 years strong

SHOWN IN THIS 2017 photo are, from left, then-Middlebury Regional EMS Board Chairman David Pistilli, EMTs Teena Betourney and Alex Brown, Executive Director Kate Rothwell and Advanced EMT Kirk Gallipo standing in front of MREMS’s newest ambulance. The $185,000 ambulance serves patients in 11 Addison County towns.

It is a community-staffed, community service organization … What it comes down to is their desire to serve the community and the people in it. That’s what makes this organization unique.
— Kate Rothwell

MIDDLEBURY — Seeing the large Middlebury Regional EMS building with the four-bay garage standing proudly at 55 Collins Drive gives thousands of Addison County residents a sense of comfort and security. They know that in any medical emergency help is mere minutes away from their front door.
This week the ambulance, heavy rescue service and dispatching service officially marks 50 years in operation.
But MREMS didn’t build its headquarters, its corps of 50 emergency responders and its fleet of ambulances, overnight. Twenty-one Middlebury-area residents, who simply wanted to assist their neighbors during health crises, laid the foundation for the nonprofit organization a half-century ago.
“It was simply a matter that you were proving a service and level of expertise they wouldn’t otherwise get,” recalled Roth “T” Tall, one of the 21 charter members of what was initially called the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association, or MVAA.
Rewind to the fall of 1970. Gene Fletcher, director of Waite’s (now Sanderson) Funeral Home on Middlebury’s South Main Street, asked Middlebury College’s Assistant to the President — T. Richardson “Rich” Miner — to organize an ambulance service. Tall explained that for most of the 20th century, the responsibility for treating an injured or ill patient in rural areas fell to an undertaker and his assistants.
“Many of them were trained in first aid and knew anatomy, but the public perceived their activity to be a potential conflict of interest,” Tall, a former longtime Middlebury College employee, wrote in an early history of the MVAA that he provided to the Independent. He noted that in the prior year, 1969, Congress had outlawed the use of hearses and funeral personnel for medical services. Congress had passed a bill providing start-up funds for communities to purchase some basic equipment and a vehicle.
So, with that as the backdrop, the MVAA held its first organizational meeting on Sept. 8, 1970. Fletcher agreed to donate a hearse that the MVAA repainted red and white and became its first ambulance.
“It was black-on-black,” MVAA founding member George “Wedge” Murdoch recalled in a 1995 interview with the Addison Independent. “We took it to Foster Motors to paint the outside red and white, but it still had a black interior.”
“(The hearse) was a great ride,” said Ann LaFiandra, who joined the MVAA in 1973. “The shocks on that thing were great.”
“We didn’t think of it as a hearse; it was a great vehicle, and it also moved,” Tall said. “At one point we were transporting a patient who was horribly injured, with a state police escort, and we had that sucker up to around 104 mph.”
The 21 MVAA charter members took a Red Cross Advanced First Aid course taught by retired Vermont State Police Trooper Wayne Reeves. The volunteers — a collection of pharmacists, schoolteachers, foresters, butchers, college professors and others — agreed to be on call 12 hours a week and one weekend per month. They were given one-way radios to receive alerts from Porter Hospital.
MVAA’s original headquarters were in the rear of the Addison County Sheriff’s Department on Court Street, with additional equipment stored in the old municipal building garage on College Street in case the Battell Bridge — the only crossing over Otter Creek at the time — became unusable, Tall explained.
The organization moved into a space with a garage at 19 Elm St. in the early 1980s and then into the big barn off Collins Drive in 2010.

FIRST AMBULANCE CALL
The service officially launched on Nov. 16, 1970, with the first call for service coming a few days later — and it was scary, according to Tall.
“A 12-year-old boy was suffering an epileptic seizure, yet he recovered,” he said. “That same week, a person who’d fallen off Weybridge’s Twin Bridges, then under construction, was rescued by the MVAA.”
Tall and his colleagues were toned out 13 times during November 1970; 22 in December; and 32 times during January 1971. By 1973, call volume rose to 397, with 85 transfers to Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington and eight to Rutland Hospital.
After a tragic drowning of a child in the Middlebury River near the Sand Hill Bridge in East Middlebury, the organization formed a mountain rescue unit. 
Tall marvels at how MREMS has grown since that first MVAA meeting back in 1970. The organization today has an annual budget of around $1.5 million and has grown to 50 full- and part-time members headquartered at the 11,860-square-foot facility on Collins Drive — just north of Porter Medical Center. The staff counts among its members a legion of EMTs and paramedics who can administer a variety of lifesaving medications and procedures while the patient is en route to the hospital. The roster of workers also includes heavy-rescue and dispatching professionals. They respond to around 3,000 calls per year in the towns of Middlebury, East Middlebury, Salisbury, Ripton, Orwell, Shoreham, Whiting, Bridport, Cornwall, Weybridge and part of New Haven.
Approximately 20% of the people on the current MREMS roster are volunteers, according to the organization’s leader, Executive Director Kate Rothwell.
Wedge Murdoch, who held nearly every position at MVAA/MREMS over his more than 40 years of membership before his death in 2011, said the history of the organization created a spirit of service that stuck with those who work there. That spirit is perhaps best epitomized by a quote from Murdoch in a 1999 article in the Addison Independent: “When you really give of yourself, you really get far more back.”
Long gone is the hearse. MREMS now carries a fleet of four ambulances, a heavy rescue vehicle and an SUV with a trailer. The heavy rescue staff members also maintain the nearby landing pad where helicopters land for urgent medical transport. 
Rothwell joined MREMS around seven years ago. She’s deeply grateful to, and respectful of, the people who shepherded the organization before her.
“They had one ‘medication’ — oxygen — when they started in 1970,” she noted. “Now we have nitrous. When they dropped their patient off, there wasn’t an Emergency Department doctor. Your primary care physician got called to the hospital to treat you. Now, as paramedics, the amount of interventions we can do, pre-hospital, the difference is incredible.”
Nowadays MREMS paramedics in the field can apply an EKG and interpret the results, then dispense the appropriate medications to relieve cardiac symptoms en route to the hospital. They can dispense pain medications when appropriate and clear a patient’s airway. They can hang blood and nitro drips.
Another big change from then to now: MREMS has a sophisticated communications center that serves as the switchboard for neighboring Porter Hospital, and also dispatches a handful of fire departments and Missisquoi Valley Rescue.
Rothwell is confident MREMS will continue for another 50 years, and more. The organizations is always looking for volunteers and professional health care workers. Volunteers must take EMT training, and fortunately a lot of that coursework is available online, Rothwell noted.
“It is a community-staffed, community service organization,” she said. “The (staff) has the drive to want to help; that’s what got them here. They’re very conscientious of the community. What it comes down to is their desire to serve the community and the people in it. That’s what makes this organization unique.” 

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