Six and a half years ago, Mike Kiely was watching television in his home in Northwest Washington when he came to the stark, though not sudden, realization that "there has to be more to life than sitting at home Wednesday nights watching 'Charlie's Angels.' "
The next morning, Kiely said, he applied at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad for membership in the predominantly volunteer rescue organization. Now a trained emergency medical technician and sergeant of the rescue squad's Sunday night crew, Kiely says he has seen more drama firsthand than he could have in a lifetime of television viewing.
But even when the sirens fade and the adrenalin level returns to normal, Kiely said, his commitment to the rescue squad satisfies a deeper need than that for excitement--a need that his profession as a civilian technical writer for the Navy Department cannot satisfy.
"Every day, I'd like to be a little better than yesterday," he said, amid the jive and banter of a youthful crew of Sunday night volunteers. "This seemed to be a good way to do that."
Pete Murphy is a 24-year-old volunteer with the rescue squad who has decided to go beyond the 84 hours of training necessary to become an emergency medical technician in Montgomery County. A private on the Sunday night crew and an aspirirng lawyer who works during the week in his father's District law firm, Murphy has embarked upon the 220 hours of training that will earn him paramedic status.
For him, the appeal of putting in long hours for no pay is that "it's exciting and it's interesting. It tests you and it teaches you."
For Sam Razick, a paramedic with four years on the force, this avocation is the realization of a "childhood fantasy, dealing with the public and learning at the same time."
Murphy and Razick are two of 140 active members of the rescue squad, whose members volunteered nearly 20,000 hours last year. From its 6-year-old, $1 million headquarters on the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Battery Lane, the squad responds to about 40 calls a day, assisting victims of everything from bloody noses to cardiac arrest, from collapsed buildings to fires and automobile wrecks.
The squad serves the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area of Montgomery County and the far Northwest section of the District. Together with the Wheaton Rescue Squad, which also is largely independent of the county but gets some of its money from Montgomery, the two are the only strictly rescue operations in that jurisdiction.
With five ambulances, two mobile intensive-care units, two heavy rescue trucks and one mobile canteen, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad is at least as well-equipped as any of the government-funded fire and rescue services in the state, its chief, David Dwyer, maintains.
The squad, in existence for 37 years, does not receive any direct financial support from Montgomery County. Most of the 18 other fire and rescue departments in the county depend on volunteers for staff and the county for money. The Damascus Fire Department in the rural upper county is the only other operation completely independent of county backing.
The B-CC squad gets all its money ($496,076 in 1981) from an annual fund drive, donations from victims and their families and other gifts.
Squad volunteers devote hours to emergency medical training and knock on hundreds of doors yearly to raise funds to buy equipment. Their volunteer work forces them to leave dozens of meals half eaten, report late to paying jobs and miss exams and holidays at home.
But despite those demands, there were 52 new applicants for volunteer membership on the squad in l982, and the squad's voting members elected to accept 47 of them; 36 eventually made it onto the squad.
Hugh Breslin has been a member of the rescue squad for four months, riding with the crew that responds to rescue calls from 7 p.m. Sunday until 7 a.m. Monday, when he leaves for his legal research job. At 3:30 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, Breslin was roused from his bunk by the buzzers and bells that announce a rescue is about to begin.
Within minutes, Breslin, adrenalin pumping, was en route to a "working code"--a cardiac arrest in which respiration has stopped.
He and the crew of Medic One, an intensive-care truck, rushed in to find the victim near death, and proceeded with practiced coordination to revive the man with a combination of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), defibrillation (administration of electric shock) and the injection of epinephrine, a hormone that can start the heart beating again.
When Breslin returned to the squad house two hours later, Thanksgiving Day was beginning to break. That run, he conceded, had been a "pretty special" experience.
Many volunteers said they joined the squad fired by a desire to be where the action was: behind the whooping sirens and on the scene at fires, crashes and news-making public disasters. The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad has aided in such emergencies as the Air Florida crash that killed 78 last January and the Metro subway crash on the same day. Robert Schappert, emergency care coordinator at the University of Maryland's Fire and Rescue Institute, calls the squad "one of the finest EMS emergency medical service organizations in the state."
The excitement of "being there," according to rescue squad Chief Dwyer, is one of the reasons there are so many applicants. But rescuing people from death and injury--or trying to--is what keeps them volunteering, squad members said. Among the ranks, the notion that rescue work gets into your blood is invoked again and again.
Experience with life and death create bonds among the volunteer rescuers that most say are deeper than some of their closest friendships outside the squad.
"You're part of a group of people that's been taught a job, and you go through some pretty special things together," said squad member Pete Murphy. "You've had people die in your arms; you may have shared the experience of bringing a baby into the world. There are somber moments, when you haven't been able to resuscitate someone, or when you see lives cut short . . . .
"You learn a lot about each other, as well as about the people you're helping."
Squad members came to know even more about each other's beliefs eight years ago when the clubby male-only atmosphere of the organization was disturbed by charges that it discriminated against female applicants. The furor began when the application of college student Lora Mackie, 19, was rejected. She asked the county's Human Relations Commission to investigate.
The controversy helped delay a Montgomery County bond issue for construction of the squad's new headquarters. After the rescue squad agreed to admit women, the $1.2 million bond issue was approved by the County Council.
Two years earlier, squad member Robert Gollan had defended the exclusion of women, arguing that "it would be like some girl trying to join a boy's fraternity . . . . There's men here all the time dropping crude language and like that." Early in l974, the squad voted to include its first woman member: Gollan's wife, Mary Ann. Mackie was also admitted.
The squad also agreed to set up an affirmative action plan covering women and minorities.
Today there are l8 female members and four minority-group members. Lt. Kenneth Burchell, the day supervisor and one of nine paid staff members, said women are not yet officers because, for the most part, they are new to the squad. Female members who work night shifts sleep in the communal bunk room with the men but have other separate facilities.
Between training sessions, the banter flows freely between squad members; there is a college dorm atmosphere and yearbooks from the past. Squad members crack jokes about each other's romantic pursuits and tell rescue stories that trumpet their own bravado.
When the alarm rings, however, they become deadly serious, scurrying to ensure that the proper rescuers tend each outgoing ambulance.
Many of those missions turn out to be other than what squad members refer to as "good calls"--life-threatening situations that push their skills and training to the limit.
The routine is, in fact, less thrilling than the frequent wail of sirens might suggest. Transporting the ailing elderly and the slightly injured account for a great number of the nearly 10,000 runs made yearly.