Portsmouth volunteer firefighters donate last ambulance

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PORTSMOUTH — For decades it's worked to keep the town supplied with rescue vehicles and state-of-the-art medical equipment, but now the Portsmouth Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) is turning that task over to Joe Taxpayer.

Last week the Fire Department welcomed the few remaining members of PVFD to reminisce over old times and thank them for the recent donation to the town of a handsome 2012 International/Horton Model 623 ambulance that volunteers purchased with $205,000 in raised funds. In addition, PVFD spent an additional $30,000 for a new cardiac monitor and patient cot for the ambulance.

"It's the most advanced cardiac monitor you can buy," said Deputy Fire Chief Michael O'Brien.

Going forward, however, it will be up to taxpayers to fund emergency medical services (EMS).

Deputy Chief O'Brien and Fire Chief Michael Cranson said it's a sign of the times for PVFD, as the group has found it increasingly difficult to raise the necessary funds to keep up with the growing need for rescue services in town.

Formed in 1936, the PVFD raised money for medical service and equipment through fund-raisers and donations.

"We used to go door to door," said Herb Rego, trustee of PVFD. "We did that for quite a few years and raised a lot of money; we didn't spend it foolishly."

Things changed in the early 80s, however, as Portsmouth turned from a farming town into a bedroom community. Volunteers started doing their fund-raising through the mail. "The town was getting so big, it was too hard to do door to door, said Henry Rodrigues, PVFD president.

In the beginning the mail drive raised about $20,000 annually, but that grew to as much as $40,000 to $50,000, said volunteers. But later on, the mailing system was having trouble keeping up with expenses. Donations began to drop off just as demand for services rose dramatically.

"We used to make about 100 calls a year," said Rodrigues referring to ambulance runs only. "Now we're already up to 500 calls and it's just May."

Many new residents did not understand how the Portsmouth EMS system worked, said Deputy Chief O'Brien; donating was not on their radar. Compounding the revenue issue, PVFD was forced to complete with national charities for people’s money. With advent of telemarketing, web-based solicitation and other technological methods for soliciting donations, PVFD didn’t stand a chance, he said.

"Up until 2000 there was no charge for rescue runs," said Chief Cranson, noting that the town started billing for emergency medical services that year. "That's kind of when the drive stopped."

Dwindling membership

There used to be as many as 60 volunteers, but there's only four now: Mr. Rodrigues, president, Mr. Rego, secretary Larry Faryniarz and treasurer Billy Bigelow.

"It's important to think about the impact that the organization has had on the town. Volunteers have bought every piece of medical equipment we own. Those guys bought our first Jaws of Life," Deputy Chief O'Brien said, referring to the hydraulic rescue tool commonly used to free victims trapped in a vehicle after an accident.

"There's a lot of people walking around today who wouldn't be, without these guys," he said.

"We've always been able to purchase and maintain the most state-of-the-art equipment. That's something, unfortunately, we may not be able to continue to do," said Chief Cranson.

Mr. Rodrigues agreed, noting that the town will have to answer to taxpayers about purchases of vehicles and equipment in the future. "A lot of time it will go to the lowest bidder, and it's not the truck you want," he said.

The old days

While they were at the station last week, PVFD members shared stories about some of the old vehicles that used to serve the town. The department's first, a 1922 combination ladder truck, cost $2,083.28," said Mr. Rego.

"You had to crank that thing to get it going. It was 28 horsepower. You got lawnmowers with more than that now," he said.

The next truck was a 1935 Maxim, which the town bought, said Mr. Rego. "It got so bad we had to tow it back from a fire," he said.

In the late '50s or early '60s, Mr. Rego said, the town bought a 12-cylinder ambulance from Tiverton for $1.

"Twelve cylinders," he repeated. "And that's when we started buying our own."

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.