Back in 1953, Montclair Volunteer Ambulance members wore white uniforms that made them look a bit like the milkman. But they drove a brand-new Cadillac ambulance that was delivered straight from the plant in Ohio, according to squad historian Frank Carlo. The history is a little ironic.
“They were Cadillac conversions. They were also used as hearses back in the day. And it was $10,000 to $12,000 to have that set up and shipped out here. Somewhere in our archives we actually have the receipt,” said Carlo, who serves as deputy chief of emergency medical services.
Gas cost just 20 cents a gallon down at the Park Street Garage, then. And when the call for emergency transport went out, the Montclair Women’s Club stepped up and fired up the phone chain to ring up the volunteers on-call.
“The police department called them and said, ‘OK, we need an ambulance at this location.’ They would start calling down a list of people who were on duty that day … to get personnel to respond to go get the ambulance, which at the time was held at a funeral home,” Carlo said.
Historically speaking, Montclair’s is not the first volunteer ambulance squad in New Jersey, both Belmar and Palmyra stake claims that go back to the 1920s. But in the 50s, many towns boasted booming post-war populations. Montclair’s was 43,775, according to the 1950 census. People who wanted a better way to move patients chartered the town’s volunteer ambulance unit and advertised for “civic-minded men.” Yes, men — at first.
“They wanted to provide the service to the residents, so at the time they did a lot of discharges from the hospital, which was actually our first job, a discharge from Montclair Community Hospital to a residence in town,” said Carlo. “And then slowly but surely we started to do emergency jobs. … New Jersey didn’t have EMTs at the time. Everyone was First Aid Certified and you basically went and picked up the people at an accident scene and you drove them to the hospital.”
Volunteer organizations flourish in communities where members generally worked close to where they live. And for a while, it clicked. Then populations and social trends started to shift, says trustee Rich McMahon.
“A lot of the volunteers were housewives. There’s not that many housewives that are home anymore, everyone has two-income families,” McMahon said. “And we’ve always prided ourselves on our 24/7/365 coverage.”
The squad finally had to hire paid members, mostly per diem, and not everyone lived locally. So the squad built a map room to help new members find their way around Montclair.
“We call it the map room, because this is our GPS,” Carlo said while standing in front of a large map with lights.
When a call came in, they’d go to the list of streets.
“So say there is a call on Valley Road. We’ll search for Valley Road, switch it over, and it lights up all of Valley Road,” Carlos said.
Nowadays, they’ve got Google Maps on laptops and smartphones, and the unit’s three working ambulances look a lot different than those old Cadillacs.