Police & Fire

The Forgotten First Responders: Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps

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Capt. Rich Cariello, Tina Harbach and Jeff Siegel stand beside the organization’s new four-wheel drive ambulance. Credits: Brian Marschhauser
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The Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps march down Underhill Avenue in the 2015 Fireman’s Parade. Credits: File Photo/Deena Bell
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YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Oftentimes when there is media coverage of an emergency, the efforts of the police and fire departments are rightfully lauded. But there’s another first responder that is increasingly becoming a footnote.

For the most part, said Capt. Rich Cariello, a 44-year member of the Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, his organization’s efforts at the scene of an emergency are usually summed up in one sentence: “And the patient was transported to the hospital.”

“How’d he get there?” Cariello asked. “They never mention by Yorktown ambulance. We’re kind of pushed aside.”

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While other first responders get the headlines and the glory, Cariello said, YVAC will continue to do the “nuts and bolts” work with the patients—and they do it well.

On May 17, YVAC was named EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Agency of the Year by the Westchester Regional EMS Council. To win the award, they beat out more than 70 other agencies, many of which cannot lay claim to being all-volunteer, as Yorktown’s corps is.

“We are one of the few all-volunteer agencies left,” said Tina Harbach, a 42-year YVAC member and chair of its Board of Directors.

That means the Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps is 100 percent independent and does not receive any money from the town of Yorktown. Instead, the ambulance corps is funded through billings and donation drives.

“If we weren’t here, the town would have to provide the service and the town would have to pay for it,” Cariello said. “That means the people would have to pay for it through their taxes.”

YVAC can only remain independent if it’s volunteer numbers grow or hold steady, and right now the organization is on life support.

“When I started, there was a waiting list,” Cariello said. “Those days are gone.”

Once boasting a roster of 100 active volunteers four decades ago, only 30 remain today.

“We need people,” Cariello said. “It boils down to that.”

Free time is a luxury that many people do not have. Many members of the ambulance corps, though, have full-time jobs and use whatever free time they can find to save lives.

“Within our organization, we have doctors, we have nurses, we have lawyers, we have people who sell real estate, we have people who are homemakers—any walk of life,” Harbach said. “It doesn’t matter what you do; you fit.”

Cariello said anybody can save a life, all they need is the desire to help people. He would know. Also on May 17, Cariello was awarded with two life-saving awards.

“Both of them were in cardiac arrest and both of them are walking around today,” Cariello said of the survivors he aided. “On one of them, I was the only one there. He went down and he had no pulse; he wasn’t breathing. I did CPR and compressions. He wound up needing a valve replacement and he now has a pacemaker, but he’s walking around. The doctor told him if somebody wasn’t there to help him, he’d be dead.”

The gratitude he gets from his patients and their families is more than enough payment, Cariello said.

“Those ‘thank yous’ mean a lot,” Cariello said. “It’s not something you put a dollar sign on or a price tag on. It’s a great feeling to know you helped somebody when they needed help.”

One of the organization’s newest recruits, Louis Varela, would agree. Varela, who works in law enforcement, joined YVAC about a year ago, when he moved to the area. He said he always wanted to volunteer for an EMS agency, but could not where he lived in the city because it had a paid ambulance corps.

“It’s just something I enjoy doing,” Varela said. “I like going on calls and helping people, even if I don’t get paid for it. It’s just getting the satisfaction of helping someone.”

No previous medical experience is required to be a member of the YVAC, Cariello said. Volunteers must become an EMT within two years of joining. They also must ride a minimum of 24 hours a month (or six hours a week).

“It’s like being home for six hours,” Cariello said. “It’s not like you’re just sitting in a room looking at the walls, waiting for a call to come in. It’s like a home.”

Indeed, the YVAC headquarters on the corner of Loretta Street and Route 202, across from FDR Park, has a TV, a kitchen, a computer and a “Keurig with every single flavor of coffee you can think of,” Cariello said. Many of the volunteers opt to pass the time in between calls by performing hobbies, doing work or watching TV. On Tuesday nights, Cariello and his crew cook dinner.

“There is a big social component to this place and you make friends and they become like a second family to you,” Harbach said. “I’ve made friendships here over my 40-plus years that have lasted through that and you don’t realize it happens, but it does.”

Once again, Varela can vouch. Those 24 hours a month go by fast, he said, because he gets to spend time among good company.

“If you can dedicate the time, it’s great, it’s fun and it gives you a good sense of satisfaction that you can actually make a difference in someone’s life by helping them out in a time they need it,” Varela said.

Cariello said that is something he always preaches to volunteers. Even if the patient’s life is not in danger, by just showing up, they are providing peace of mind to them and their family.

“When somebody dials 9-1-1 because they are having a medical emergency, regardless of whether it is or not, to them they are having an emergency,” Cariello said. “They’re relieved that you’re there to help them.”

Last year, the YVAC responded to more than 1,300 emergency calls, which is standard for the organization. Despite celebrating its 55th year and marching in various town parades, the volunteer organization continues to confuse even longtime residents.

“I’ve picked up people who lived here for 20, 30 years, and they had no idea who we were,” Cariello said. “They don’t even know where we are. We’re Yorktown’s best-kept secret.”

Jeff Siegel, vice chair of the Board of Directors, was a little blunter.

“We’re the red-headed stepchild,” Siegel said.

The YVAC also runs a Youth Corps, hosts CPR courses, loans medical equipment and sponsors a blood bank. Anyone interested in joining the Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps family can visit YVAC.net and fill out an application, or stop by its headquarters at 2600 Loretta St.

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