WESTFIELD, NJ — Recently honored for 45 years of volunteer service to the Westfield Volunteer Rescue Squad, Marie Keller reminisced about her experience as the first-ever female member of the squad.
In the early 1970s, Keller and her husband, Bill, were raising their three sons and one daughter in Westfield. Keller had always enjoyed helping people and was looking for somewhere to volunteer her time while her kids were in school. After reading in a local newspaper that the rescue squad was looking for volunteers, she stopped in one day only to be told, “We don’t have women on the squad,” she said. But she was told to come back later in the day when the shift changed, and when she returned, it seemed something had changed.
“I didn’t want to just answer the phone,” Keller explained. “I wanted to actually join the squad. Once they made the decision to allow me, as a woman, to join, they did what they could to make me comfortable. Soon after joining, I was elected daytime lieutenant, which meant that I did all the scheduling. Eventually I was elected the first female deputy captain.”
The one problem with being a woman at that time, Keller said jokingly, was that “the uniforms were always too big on me.”
Keller remembered how, in her early days on the squad, some of the squad members owned shops in town. The merchants often filled in during daytime shifts, with the ambulances picking them up at their stores when they needed an extra hand. The daytime volunteers shifts are the most difficult to fill, she said.
For eight years, Keller spent some of her time answering the phones for the squad, and some time both riding and driving the ambulance to help residents with medical emergencies. For a while, she even kept the ambulance parked in front of her house on occasion, and would head out in it when she received a call. After she was injured and hospitalized when a driver hit the ambulance Keller was riding in with a patient, she said she had a wakeup call.
“I still needed to be there for my children, so we couldn’t really take the chance of anything happening to me while I was volunteering,” she said.
Keller still continued with the rescue squad, but was back in the squad building. She was eventually named chief dispatcher, handling phone emergencies from Westfield residents, sending the ambulance out and giving tours to groups of children after school.
“I kept busy doing what I loved, and this wouldn’t interrupt my home life,” Keller said. Occasionally, people would drive themselves to the squad building in town.
“I remember one incident where a man had lost several fingers in a snow blower,” Keller recalled. She used this incident as a reminder: “It’s very important that people don’t come down to the rescue squad. Let them come to you.”
Keller’s children were all proud of her, and she said that they still tell people that their mother was the first female member of the Westfield Rescue Squad.
“Of course, now it doesn’t make much difference if you’re a woman,” said Keller, “But back then, they didn’t have to let me on.”
After her children were grown, Keller said she got a job, but was still able to continue volunteering for the squad when she had time.
Keller now lives in Scotch Plains with her husband, and just recently retired from the Westfield Rescue Squad after 45 years. She continues to volunteer locally in a nursing home.
To learn more about the WVRS, visit their website at www.WestfieldRescueSquad.org and watch our video, Ride Along with the Westfield Volunteer Rescue Squad.