Virginia Tech Magazine
Fall 2007 [ Feature ]
With a little help from their friends
by Colleen Kearney Rich
VT Rescue Squad

VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
VT Rescue Squad
For years, the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad (VTRS) has been operating professionally, efficiently, and just under the radar. Then the events of a tragic April morning thrust the squad into the spotlight.

Suddenly, images of squad members at work were all over the media--and their phones were ringing off the hook. Matthew Green and Matthew Lewis, VTRS president and vice president at the time, respectively, took the bulk of the media calls and fielded questions from news outlets from around the world.

"They performed admirably in the face of terrible circumstances that day," says Daniel High (sociology '97), president of the VTRS Life Member and Alumni Association (LMAA). High is not alone in praising the actions of this all-student, all-volunteer squad, which is the oldest collegiate rescue squad of its kind in the country. Commendations have come from a number of sources, including the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and Alumni Association and the governor's review panel. The squad also received the Stars of Life Award from the American Ambulance Association.

Then there were the gifts and cards from well-wishers across the country: baskets of snack foods, chocolate, assorted flower arrangements, cans of soup, and even a box of quilts from a group in Littleton, Colo. E-mails of thanks and encouragement poured in from around the world, overwhelming the squad's ability to reply to each one, but every message was read and appreciated.

Not your average student group

It is a tight-knit community. Ask any of the current members or alumni--you major in rescue squad and minor in whatever it is you are studying. "All of the members have several shifts that they pull a week. But people spend far more time here than that," says Joanna Romanyshyn, current VTRS vice president and public information officer. "You come here to hang out between classes. It is kind of a second home for some."

"It is a lot like a fraternity house,” comments crew member Audrey Martin. "Only a nerdy one, where people are always talking about medical stuff."

Located in an old campus mail room near the power plant smokestack, the squad station does have that frat house feel with its worn sofas and a heavily used kitchen, but there are the fire and rescue magazines strewn about and conversations about what is being covered in "I class," a shorthand for the emergency medical technician intermediate training program that a number of the squad members are enrolled in at night outside their college major.

"It is a small station. There aren't too many places to hide," says High, who is now a Baltimore City firefighter. "That forms a tight bond."

The atmosphere is lighthearted and friendly, but the squad members are serious about the work. At the start of the semester, members could be found unloading supplies and preparing for the first football game. Working football games and such large-scale events as Commencement is mandatory for all members. Alumni squad members, many of whom have gone on to careers in fire-fighting and rescue or medicine, frequently come to town to help out and work the games.

Maintaining the highest standards

The squad trains throughout the year and continuously updates its emergency plans. All of the VTRS probates--prospective members in training--are required to take part in a mass casualty incident drill similar to the plan they activated on April 16.

All of the 38 active members worked that day, says current VTRS President James Downing. Those members who weren't on duty showed up on scene as soon as they heard the news. "It went like clockwork," Downing says simply.

Part of what helped operations run so smoothly was that the squad was working side-by-side with agencies such as the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad (BVRS), groups that regularly assist them with what they call "interagency training drills," so long-standing relationships were already in place. "They helped us a lot that day," comments Downing.

Over the years, the BVRS has been instrumental in helping members get specific kinds of training with equipment and in situations they wouldn't ordinarily encounter on campus. "They have a crash truck, which we don't have," notes Romanyshyn. Recently, in a training exercise with BVRS, the extrication teams from both squads worked together on a high-speed vehicle impact scenario while using Blacksburg's hydraulic rescue tools.

While squad members aren't quick to brag about themselves, they will boast about the squad's response time, which is between two and three minutes--nearly unheard of in the emergency medical service community. The area they cover, the Blacksburg campus, encompasses 2,600 acres and 19 miles of roadway.

According to VTRS Captain Matt Johnson, VTRS maintains two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, an ALS-equipped first-response vehicle, a John Deere Gator capable of transporting patients from areas unreachable with an ambulance, a bicycle response team, and a mass-casualty response unit capable of treating up to 30 patients.

Into the future

With the squad's increased visibility, it isn't surprising that applications are up. The squad tries to take on 12 probates a year, and it is a lengthy process to become an active member.

Downing acknowledges that it is like a Greek organization in some ways. "How I explain it [to prospective members] is that while all fraternities have a service component, for us the service component comes first," he says. "The friendships come as a result of that work. [Our organization] appeals to people who want to help out in the community and gain valuable experience while doing it."

Romanyshyn agrees. "You fall in love with the work."

Supported in part by the university and by donations, they are definitely seeing more resources coming their way. This summer, Carilion Health System, one of the top medical providers in the region, made a large donation to establish a VTRS endowment.

And changes are on the horizon with regard to their quarters--one of the issues included in the university's report on April 16 was a recommendation that police and rescue operations have their own building on campus. While university administrators and the board of visitors have moved swiftly to begin allocating funds and initiating the process, a location has not yet been announced.

Squad members are excited despite the fact that, technically, they won't be around to enjoy the new space. "We've always had plans to expand, and we've been hoping for eons for more space and a new location. This surpasses any of our expectations," says Romanyshyn, who will graduate in May. Then she smiles. "But you know, I will miss this old place."

Always on call
VT Rescue Squad
"I will never forget the strong wind gusts. They almost blew my car off the road heading down Interstate 81," says Daniel High (sociology '97), recalling his drive to Blacksburg the afternoon of April 16 from his residence in Baltimore, Md. As the president of the VTRS alumni group, High knew other alumni would also respond; the need to coordinate efforts and assist in the immediate recovery from the tragedy was evident.

"It felt like 9-11 all over again, the shock, that horrible pit-in-your-stomach feeling," says High, whose interest in emergency services started at VTRS in 1994 and led him to a career in the fire service.

When he arrived at the station on Tuesday morning, he found that most squad members were still in "response mode," but he was uplifted by the fact that some things hadn't changed. "The newest members were still running for the phones when they rang, a probate tradition, and supplies were being restocked," he says. "A strong feeling of resiliency permeated the squad."

But there was also a lot to be done. During that week, more alumni returned to Blacksburg to lend a hand. They washed ambulances and restocked disaster kits. "There were enough of us there to staff an ambulance for them and answer phones at the station," High says. "They needed time to grieve and not be on duty."

It was also clear to High that the former squad members who could not be with them on campus were with them in spirit. Messages of encouragement from squad alumni and the emergency response community were posted on the station walls for current members to see.

The VTRS Life Member and Alumni Association (LMAA) has 258 life members, which is one of the more honored classes of membership. To become a life member, a candidate must be voted in by the entire squad. A handful of people get voted in each year, many of whom take on leadership and mentoring roles with the squad. "It is definitely an achievement," High says of life member status. "[Members] don't want to just graduate. They enjoy coming back and giving back."

While LMAA members have always stayed in touch with the current squad by returning to help out at football games or assisting with training drills, they made the connection stronger this spring by instituting a sponsorship program. Now each present squad member has an alumni sponsor who checks in and reaffirms the support from the LMAA.

"Especially as summer break was starting, we wanted to at least have some connection to squad members while they were away from their support network--their fellow squad members," notes High. "This will likely become a permanent part of the squad and LMAA's relationship."

The LMAA has always been an active bunch. Since the 1980s, the group has been gathering for a beach week each summer at the Outer Banks. As people married and started their families, the houses they have rented have grown larger over time, but the tradition remains the same. An awards banquet in the spring provides time for alumni to reconnect with each other as well as connect with current members. They also hold the annual association meeting that same weekend.

"It sounds simple, but one of the greatest things we did [that week] was to take active squad members out for food and conversation," High says. "It was there that the members would open up and talk to each other. In my opinion, it was the start of the healing, the best kind of stress debriefing. But most of all, we let them know that they were not alone. To us, it certainly felt like family."

Celebrating the start of something big
Vt Rescue Squad
In the spring of 2009, VTRS will celebrate 40 years of service to the university. The group traces its beginnings to 1969 and the "Tech Four": founding members Thomas Spain, Bobby Smallwood (biology '73), Wayne Modena, and Richard Paul (management '73), who were students with an interest in emergency medicine.

On April 2, 1970, their organization was approved by the Commission for Undergraduate Student Affairs and officially began operations. By the end of May that year, the squad had already answered 47 calls, all using their personal vehicles because the group did not have an ambulance.

They began recruiting in earnest and soon had 45 members and a "headquarters" in Squires 320. VTRS life member Scott Chandler (management '74) recalls the fledgling station. "It was so small that we had to store crucial supplies above the drop ceiling tiles."

"It was practically a closet," says squad member Joanna Romanyshyn when she tells the story in one of the rooms of the station that holds shelves full of the VTRS historical documents. "They would have to all run over to Squires to pick up their equipment before they could take a call. They weren't supposed to sleep there, but we suspect some of them did."

The squad eventually acquired its first ambulance in 1971, and there has been no stopping them since. In addition to the 235 life members, the group has hundreds of alumni members, and squad alumnus Daniel High is urging those alumni who have been out of touch to reconnect by going to or contacting High directly at

Each spring, squad members and alumni gather in Blacksburg for their annual awards banquet. High would like the 40th anniversary celebration to be the best banquet yet. "We've been through a lot," he says. "There is much to remember and 40 years of dedicated service to celebrate."

Colleen Kearney Rich is editor of Mason Spirit, the alumni magazine for George Mason University, and mother of VTRS member Andrew Thornberg. On April 16, Rich saw Andrew on every news channel, working with the squad, hours before she got to speak to him.

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