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A hearse, a nose bleed and a movement: Tracing 50 years at the KAA

By Clark Judge, KAA.

Nobody is exactly sure when the Killingworth Ambulance Association began, but all who were in on the ground floor agree it was sometime in 1971. What they can’t ascertain, however, is what provoked its formation – though one of its founders tried.

“Charlie Grace,” said Charlie Smith, the KAA’s first president.

Excuse me?

“He lived on (Route) 148,” said Smith, “and was susceptible to nose bleeds. He kept calling Clinton (ambulance), and one time when they took him to the hospital he nearly bled out. So that was the incentive.”

That was 50 years ago when Nixon was president, a gallon of gas cost 36 cents, Archie Bunker ruled TV … and the KAA took shape. Responders were volunteers who weren’t EMT-or-MRT trained. There were no masks. There were no gowns. There were no gloves. There were no uniforms because there was no money.

The ambulance was a used red-and-white Cadillac. Board meetings were at the old Center School off the town circle. And calls were limited to emergencies only.

“Times were different then,” said Dan Perkins, another founding father.

How much different? We asked a handful of the KAA’s original members as the group prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This is their story.

IN THE BEGINNING …

Prior to 1971, there was no KAA. Ambulance calls for Killingworth were handled by neighboring towns, depending on where you lived. If it was south Killingworth, Clinton responded. If it was north Killingworth, Durham took the call. Madison handled west Killingworth, Westbrook the east and a private firm out of Middletown took whatever fell its way.

“So service was spotty,” said Smith.

(L-R) Don McDougall, Dan Perkins, Charlie Smith

That’s an understatement. There were fewer than 100 calls per year – sometimes more like 40-50 — for a town of 2,500, with the majority taken by Clinton.

Which is where Charlie Grace comes in.

“The need was there,” said Smith. “The most important thing was a motivator.”

One was Don McDougall, an active member of the KAA’s board of directors today at 87.So a handful of town residents, led by Walter Albrecht, got together and decided to do something about it. They pushed for a volunteer ambulance association, called an informal town meeting where the group was approved and adopted the Westbrook system of an individual, non-political organization. Soon, Smith and Perkins said, the group had an estimated 25 volunteers – most of them married couples — on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Someone came to my door and asked if I’d like to join,” he said. “So I did.”

In fact, he answered the KAA’s third ambulance call. Like others, he wasn’t EMT-trained. That wasn’t required. CPR and first-aid were, and McDougall got instruction in both in one weekend with the Westbrook Ambulance. Four years later, he gained EMT certification by taking 80 hours of classes at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown.

Today, aspiring techs are required to take 150.

“You didn’t have to have the same credentials then as you do now,” said Perkins.

And so the KAA was born, with volunteers ready to take 12-hour shifts scheduled by Albrecht. Responders were alerted at home by telephone, and they were required to find replacements if unable to commit to scheduled shifts. But before they could launch, one piece was missing.

An ambulance.

DEALS ON WHEELS

This is where Albrecht comes in, persuading local resident and philanthropist Marion Platt to donate $3,000 toward the purchase of a vehicle. It was a 1964 used Cadillac with 13,000 miles on it, purchased from a dealer in Fairfield County. But it wasn’t a sedan. It was an ambulance that looked more like a hearse, and there was a reason: Because it was.

The KAA’s first ambulance (left)

Honest.

“We had just opened an account at the Clinton National Bank,” said Smith, who joined Albrecht and KAA member Hap Gaylord to close the deal. “But we had no money in the account. I remember when we made the down payment. We told them not to cash the check.”

That’s when Platt came to the rescue.

By the end of its first year of operation, the KAA had $7,000 in donations and an ambulance. But where to put the transport? There was a gas station in town off Route 80 – Saglio’s garage, site of today’s Dance Corner – that no longer was in business, and owner John Saglio offered it to the KAA free of charge for as long as needed.

From there, the ambulance moved to the Center School and, later, the Killingworth Volunteer Fire Company’s headquarters, built in 1971 next to Town Hall.

“But did you know about the gas?” asked Smith.

Uh, no.

“After each run, we were required to leave the ambulance with a full tank,” he said. “We needed gas, not diesel, and thanks to Louise Burghardt – who had a filling station on Route 80 – we got fill-ups after each trip, regardless what time it was … even if it was 3 in the morning.

“Now, remember: This was before cell phones, and she lived above the gas station. So how did we communicate with her? We must have had to call dispatch – which was in Clinton – and asked them to wake her up to open up the pumps. She always did.”

FIRST RESPONDERS WITH FIRST RESPONSES

Calls could be as eventful as they were sporadic. In the winter, driveways sometimes were so deep in snow that first responders had to wait for plows to arrive. Once the KAA answered a call of a burning house on Route 81 near the Higganum border … and wound up rescuing a pig from a smoldering lean-to. Then there was Smith’s first call as a responder.

It never happened.

Rushing to Saglio’s garage, he and his partner found the ambulance missing. It turns out that a board member had taken it without notifying anyone to rush his grandchild, injured in a vehicle mishap, to the hospital.

“So,” Smith said, “it was a non-call.”

But that wasn’t his most indelible memory. Transporting a pregnant woman was, a story chronicled in 1974 by local resident David Sturges in the book “Tales of Killingworth: You Can Get There From Here.” Appropriately, the chapter was entitled “The Anxious Patient and the Indisposed Attendant.”

The KAA’s second ambulance

By this time, the KAA had moved on to a second ambulance, a lime-green 1974 Cadillac, and it was first on the scene. So was Smith. The two were summoned in the middle of the night to the newly constructed Middlesex Hospital clinic in Essex, where the patient – late in her pregnancy – had gone, complaining of leg pains.

“The doctor who evaluated her thought she should go to a hospital,” said Smith, “but he recommended she not be transported by car. So he called for an ambulance. She wanted her leg to be level with her heart because the doctor suspected a blood clot, and one of the treatments is to keep the patient flat on her back.

So the patient was loaded, and the ambulance sped off to Middlesex Hospital where, Smith said, the KAA took “80 percent of our transports.” One problem: It was the wrong destination. The patient’s physician was at Yale-New Haven. So the ambulance immediately exited Route 9, changed direction and headed west.

“One thing after another was happening,” said Smith. “I was in the back of the ambulance, and on the way my stomach started feeling sick. I wound up throwing up my dinner in one of the pails in the back of the ambulance which was for patient use, not for the driver or attendant. And then she was not in any distress; she just had this pain in her leg and was quite sympathetic to my moment of distress.”

Bottom line: The patient didn’t deliver … not until weeks later … but comforted Smith instead.

“We had quite a chat all the way back,” he said, “and she made me feel better. Our roles got reversed.”

FINDING A HOME

By 1981, the KAA’s board of directors resolved to have its own headquarters. In the late 1970s it was holding meetings at the Killingworth Volunteer Fire Company, though they sometimes moved to homes of board members or the front room of Town Hall.

But all that changed in 1982. The association signed a 25-year lease on a two-acre parcel from the town at $1 year, which is the current rate, and began construction on a two-story building. Money was tight, and so was the KAA’s budget. It held the figure at $50,000 and set an “anticipated” deadline for completion at February, 1983.

It met both.

How? With a remarkable grass-roots effort that featured volunteer work and donations of materials. Architect Arlene Tunney agreed to work for free. Local electricians, masons, carpenters – basically, an assortment of tradespeople –volunteered their time and services. Former board member Jim Lally of Schumack Engineered Construction would oversee the project and do the excavating.

He volunteered, too.

“Everywhere you turned,” said Lally, “somebody was doing something. There was a lot of sweat equity.”

Finding Tunney was a coup. She was an award-winning local architect and friend of Lally and then-KAA president Don Henson. When they mentioned something to her about hiring an architect, Tunney told them she had an idea.

“I said I’d do it for free, which they liked,” said Tunney, who now splits her time between Chester and Block Island while maintaining her firm, Tunney Associates. “I lived in town, and it just made sense to do it. In reality, I got other work out of it, too. People saw it and thought it was a nice building.”

It was. It still is.

 

In fact, it won an award from the American Wood Council and was pictured on the cover of an architectural construction magazine. The building, which Tunney admitted “was kind of ahead of its time,” incorporated “a passive solar system” that included a slate floor in a sun space, walls that retained heat and one bay for an ambulance.

A second bay was added in 2002 to accommodate a bigger, box-style Ford ambulance acquired the previous December.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Tunney. “Jim Lally was incredible. He gave me my lead and said, ‘We can do this, and we can do that.’ He and Don Henson were a delight to work with.”

By 1982, the KAA was handling an estimated 150 calls annually. Funding was still a concern, but with the help of a building fund campaign, $23,000 had been donated by early December, 1981.

Nevertheless, more was needed. As an incentive, the KAA offered townspeople a sweetheart deal: Members who donated $15-20 annually qualified for free emergency transportation – as did their families and house guests.

The inducement worked. When the building was completed, the KAA met all its expenses.

“We didn’t raise all the money in the beginning,” said Lally, “but we were close. The trick was to keep it going, and we thought as people saw the building coming to fruition they would jump aboard. And that’s what worked out.”

TURNING 50

Today, the KAA is firmly entrenched, with an operating budget of $167,150 for the 2021-22 fiscal year. Not included is the possible acquisition of a new, fully-outfitted ambulance at an estimated cost of $400,000, a vehicle that would replace the current box-style Dodge ambulance, purchased in 2011 for over $200,000.

In all, there have been seven ambulances, including a 1978 box van purchased new for $34,556, and a box-style ambulance acquired in 1991 for $65,300. When the latter vehicle was retired, it was donated to an ambulance squad in Mariaville, Me., a rural town of 414, through a contact made by the KAA’s McDougall.

An ambulance for Mariaville, Maine

“They needed an ambulance,” he said, “so I brought it up to the board, and they OK’d it.”

Within a year of its creation, for instance, the Frackelton Fund — named in memory a local resident who died — donated money to fully equip the first ambulance, including stretchers, medical supplies and orthopedic equipment. In 1976 a local actors’ group contributed $7,155 to cover the cost of a new cardiac monitor. Then there was the construction of the KAA’s headquarters. The KAA currently includes 27 technicians (all volunteers), offers CPR, EMT and “Stop the Bleed” classes, last year answered an estimated 350 calls and received $35,050 in annual donations in 2020-21. It is a vital and necessary service of the town that created it, but history tells us it’s much more than that. It is the embodiment of a can-do spirit that defines Killingworth as a community.

“When I see this building,” Smith said on a recent visit, “it’s not a proud moment. It’s more of a lucky moment that a small town had volunteers who, frankly, sacrificed a lot in the early 1970s to make some of these organizations grow strong.”

Dan Perkins was one of those volunteers, and he nodded as Smith spoke.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “We started with nothing, and it turned out pretty well.”

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