On life support for years, the Morristown Ambulance Squad has decided to pull the plug on itself.
Fifty-eight years of volunteer service will come to an end this evening, New Year’s Eve 2019, announced longtime squad member Dominick Sandelli.
“Many factors have played into this decision and it was not made rashly,” Sandelli said in a brief statement. “With volunteerism at an all-time low and redevelopment in our town moving us out of our home, we find ourselves unable to meet the demands of the town.”
Video: The Morristown Ambulance Squad, R.I.P.
Squad President Karen Johansen, a volunteer for nearly 33 years, told MorristownGreen.com that the roster has dwindled to just eight members.
“People’s lives have changed, economies have changed,” Johansen said. “The days of mom-and-pop stores, where pop could answer a fire call and mom could ride with the ambulance, are gone. People can’t walk away from their jobs anymore.”
The squad decided to shut down on Tuesday rather than renew its state license for 2020, Johansen said, adding that the squad’s three vehicles probably will be donated to a neighboring agency.
Closing felt “very sad,” she acknowledged. “A lot of people put in a lot of hours, a lot of us.”
Town officials voiced thanks for the volunteers’ service.
“The Morristown Ambulance Squad provided a valuable community service to our town for many decades. The dedication of this group of volunteers will be missed,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty.
“I’d like to personally thank the Morristown Ambulance Squad for all their years of service to our community…we will miss seeing them throughout the town!” said Council President Toshiba Foster.
The decision culminates a decline that accelerated in 2015 when the squad was evicted from its headquarters on the town’s former public works site, to make way for the Modera apartment complex.
Squad ambulances have been parking behind the Best Western Plus Morristown Inn on South Street. While grateful to the motel, Johansen noted that the location was not conducive to recruiting high school students as volunteers.
Finding a permanent site proved vexing in a town of less than three square miles, where “any land is premium land,” Johansen said.
At its peak, Morristown Emergency Medical Services, as the squad also was known, had upwards of 45 volunteers, who were able to answer about 95 percent of 2,600 annual calls, according to Johansen. In recent times, the squad has struggled to respond to 5 percent of emergencies, she said.
In 2015, the Morris Minute Men, a volunteer organization serving Morris Plains and Morris Township, severed a mutual aid agreement with the short-staffed Morristown squad, citing an “undue burden” from covering 180 times for the squad that year.
So the town turned to Atlantic Ambulance, a subsidiary of Atlantic Health, the parent organization of Morristown Medical Center, as its primary emergency services provider. The Morristown Fire Bureau also responded to ambulance calls for a time, though it no longer does.
Around the same time, the town halved its annual contribution to the ambulance squad, to $30,000, and then stopped the funding. But Johansen said money wasn’t the prime issue; the squad was able to cover costs by billing patients.
“Members can raise money. But money can’t raise members,” she said. “We’re not the first ambulance squad to fold, and we’re not going to be the last.”
Service will cease just before midnight, according to Sandelli, who expressed thanks to everyone who provided support.
Specifically, he recognized:
- Morristown PBA
- Morristown FMBA
- Atlantic Paramedics
- Morris Minute Men EMS
- New Vernon First Aid Squad
- Mendham Borough First Aid Squad
- Mendham Township First Aid Squad
- Morristown Airport Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting
- Morris County Communications Center
“We wish everyone all the best in the future of emergency services,” said Sandelli, who played Santa Claus for years at Our Youth Their Future’s holiday party for disadvantaged children.
Foster, co-founder of Our Youth Their Future, said the nonprofit is “most grateful for their service/assistance in making sure Santa arrived safely” to distribute gifts. Ambulance squad volunteers “brought great joy and smiles to our festivities,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Karen Johansen and town officials.