This is file #79 and this is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Mike Brenner about the Salisbury Volunteer Ambulance Service and anything else he can think of. Today’s date is August 28th, 2014. I am interviewing him at the Scoville Memorial Library.
JM:What is your name?
JM:That is an easy one! Your birthdate, please
JM:Your birth place
MB:Jacksonville, North Carolina
JM:Your parents’ names, please.
MB:Frances and Charles
JM:How did you come to the area from North Carolina?
MB:We stopped in New Jersey temporarily. That is where I grew up. When I got out of high school I enlisted in the service. As a family we had visited the area probably from the mid 1960’s to the early 1970’s. They finally made the move in 1973. Dad wanted to retire up here as it was a beautiful area. It still is a beautiful area.
JM;I am assuming your educational background was all in New Jersey?
MB:High school, yes. I got an Associate’s Degree in criminal Justice at Northwest Community College in Winsted, Ct.
JM:Tell me about the service in relation to what you did later in life.
MB:I enlisted in the Coast Guard. Viet Nam was still going on in the 1970’s. At that point there was a draft and my number had come up. I knew that they would call because the war wasn’t over. Rather than have them tell me what to do, I enlisted in the Coast Guard with which I had a relationship. I grew up on the Jersey shore so I was around boats. As a Boy Scout and as a young man, I had gotten involved with fire departments so it was a “no brainer” to join them. I saw the Coast Guard not only as an education and an opportunity, but the opportunity to continue what I had already started to do with emergency services mode. Fortunately I went to boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey. I put in for an overseas billet jobs; they sent me to Governor’s Island in New York. So I went from Brick Township, New
Jersey to Cape May, New Jersey to lower Manhattan. I really got around. I got to see the world! I did two years on a ship being a small boat coxswain. I did emergencies services stuff and medical stuff. Then I did two years in the Investigation Unit for the Captain of the Port of New York which was very interesting. I did some training there which I brought with me when I came back out which led me into the ambulance and fire department.
JM:When did you get out of the service?
MB:I officially finished my commitment in 1977 for active duty, and then I did another 2 and one half years of active reserve duty.
JM:So about 1980ish.
MB:I was back in the area by 1977-78. Obviously as time went by I was here more and more. I got involved with the ambulance service when I got out in ’77 because there was a need. There is always a need. So I got involved with that. I just flowed from one area to another. As a younger person and while I was in the service I just kept on with what I had been doing.
JM:You just kept on at a higher level with more training. Was some of the training related to the ambulance service that you had had?
MB:When I was going to college which was about the same time in Winsted and getting involved with the ambulance, so I got my Water Safety Director’s card and I got my Scuba Self -contained Breathing Apparatus Underwater card. I also think I was a First Aid CPR Instructor for a while. At that point I took my EMT class while all that was going on so that I could ride in the ambulance. I also had all that service training, repelling and all that underwater stuff and all those things that they taught me in the Coast Guard I brought with me, too.
JM:A man of many parts.
MB:Jack of a lot of them, a little crazed!
JM:In interviewing the other people, they all said, “If I have a problem, I go to Mike.” Because you have such a wealth of experience in so many areas and you have been doing it long enough that you have the background for it. That makes a tremendous amount of difference.
MB:I feel good about what I have done over the years that I have been doing it. I think that I do it well. I don’t want to brag.
JM;You do. If 5 or 6 different people on all different levels say “He is the man to go to.” Rest assured you are doing a good job. What is your actual title?
MB:Right now I am the Assistant Rescue Chief down there. Over the years since ’77 I have held many positions down there. I have been chief of Service, I have been the Assistant Chief of Service, and
I have been the Rescue Chief for years and years. I think at one point I actually held the First Aid Chief’s job. The title is not important; it is getting the job done. That is what it is all about.
JM:You have been in the ambulance service since 1977 and this is 2014, so you have been in for a long time.
MB:Sometimes it is an illness rather than a job.
JM:I can understand that.
MB:I don’t know if there is a cure.
JM:When you had a regular job other than the ambulance, what was your day and who were your crewmembers?
MB:It has really evolved since 1977 until now. When I got involved in ’77 there was an “assigned team” and there was a team leader or captain. You would take 24 hours and be responsible to respond if there was a call and every week it backed up one day so that the rotation changed. If you did Thursday this week, you would do Wednesday the following week. Now with everybody’s schedules so hectic over the years, it has evolved into when are you available and when can you do. So right now I am riding on Thursdays during the day on one week, and Tuesdays the following week during the daytime. During the daytime seems to be the critical stress time with what goes on. Moreover people as we get older we take paid jobs out of the area; when we were younger we were around because we were doing jobs around town so you could respond. Now more and more people are working either slightly or a lot out of the area. The daytime shift is hard to fill. It gets harder and harder every year. So now that I am retired, I have more to do now than when I was working full time. I am trying to do 2 days during the week around my wife’s schedule and a little traveling and doing some fun stuff.
JM:Oh you have to have the fun stuff! This is the fun stuff for me, I’ll tell you.
MB:There you go!
JM:Other than schedules getting tighter, how else has the ambulance service changed over the time that you have been involved?
MB:More regulations and more training. You used to be able to come to do a basic training class and you had to do some stuff during the year, but now it is almost like a full time job. They want more and more. Even before 911 but specifically at 911 they have burdened both the firemen and the ambulance services in all the towns across the entire nation with more and more skill sets that they feel that we need to be required to learn because of the unknown and the threat.
JM:Does it make a difference as far as the training is concerned whether you are a volunteer ambulance or a paid ambulance?
MB:No, because there are mandates. Osha had mandates, the State Department of Health has mandates, Homeland Security people have mandates, so besides being trained medically and being up on illnesses, hazardous material, electric shock safety, and all the stuff that the Health Department wants, then you have a whole other group of regulations that come down from Osha which is the Occupational guys, by saying, “Well, we need to have so many hours of drivers training, and so many hours of this and that. Then the Homeland Security people come in and go, “Well, if nerve agents are used, you need to have antidote kits and you need to be able to recognize radiation and hazardous material. You need to be able to put these suits on and use these respirators, and it just keeps going on.” It is not a lot of fun anymore!
JM:If you have to have all these supplies, where do you get the money from?
MB:A lot of time the federal government when they make a mandate, they usually try to back it up. The state is not as good about that as the federal government, but they do what they can.
JM:Do you write grants?
MB:There are some grants for different federal and state things that are available. We try to get people trained and do group training with other ambulance groups or other fire groups. We are trying not to duplicate the same thing over and over again so that the resources will be spread as far and wide without making the burden too bad. A lot of time we split the cost up. A lot of times the feds in their wisdom will have people train; you just need to try to get on their schedule which is horrendous because you are talking about thousands and thousands of people.
JM:They all have different schedules.
MB:You have paid people and volunteer people; the ambulance is easy. You came to work today we are going to teach you this class. To try to get a volunteer to give up more time besides what they are already doing..
JM:You really can’t, not to have commitments to family and other things.
MB:Then you have to walk that line and keep that balance. They have to do it; it is like if you don’t do this, you can’t ride. Do you really want not to be able to serve the public anymore?
JM:Sometimes you are in a bind. How large an area does the Salisbury Volunteer Ambulance Service cover?
MB:It covers the geographical boundaries of the town.
JM:which is about 40 square miles?
MB:Yeah, about 40 square miles which makes it close to 70 miles of roadways. Because of the uniqueness of where we are, we also have mutual aid agreements with all the towns around us.
Because we border two other states, we cross into other states. We have agreements with the squads over in New York State and other agreements with the squads up in Massachusetts, and all the ones down through Connecticut. I believe because of our equipment cache we are able to do some state wide task response tasks. If a big one comes and it turns out that they need help, we go. We set up crews for 911 in case we had to go down. We set up crews and geared up for other massive area wide events. We are not only here to help ours but help everybody who needs us.
JM:This is a unique area for rescues. Tell me about the different types of rescues.
MB:Because of our water bodies and our mountainous terrain and in the winter time for ice fishing, we spend some time on frozen bodies or semi-frozen bodies of water with skating and sledding and ice fishing accidents in conjunction with the fire department. We spend on the average per year anywhere from 6 to 16 times up on the mountain looking for those adventurous people that want to go walking and see nature that don’t stay on the trail. Or they go up and they are not prepared; we go in and find them. Thank God for cellphones at this point; it used to be a blind search and now it is a little more refined. Over the years we put together and developed search and rescue protocols and equipment for those unfortunate citizens that don’t follow common sense rules. Because we live in the corner of the state and we have a lot of motor vehicle traffic of all kinds, trucks, trailers, wide loads, big loads you name it, we have refined our vehicle extrication equipment and training so that we can meet the need of whatever is passing through.
JM:I would also imagine that with so many senior citizens living in the area, you have medical emergencies as well.
MB:Oh yeah the medical emergencies, the bulk of what we do is medical stuff. The rescue stuff is “knock on wood” a sideline. When those special needs come up, you need to be prepared for them, but the general population of us is in the 60’s now. There is nothing to keep young people here; you can’t afford to live here and there isn’t a lot of work. We young people are now getting older.
JM:We are, aren’t we? I did Roger McKee yesterday and he was born the same year you were, and I said, “How many years have you taught at Salisbury School?” He looked at me and said, “35?”
MB:When I started out when we came here, I was just out of the service. I was not married and had no commitments I was just working and going to college. Now I watch the kids when I was young now have kids and we are running the cycle.
JM:With myself being a teacher, watching my kids have kids and their kids have kids as it is like oh my God! For me it is a wonderful experience because in this job I get to interview so many of my former pupils. I am so proud of what responsible people they are and good parents that they are. So for me this is vindication of a lot of stuff.
MB:And the fact that it was good.
JM:Yeah, hopefully. I even hate to ask this but do you do any other civic activities?6.
MB:I am involved with the Emergency Management part of the town government with Jackie Rice to mitigate emergencies at the town level. I am in the fire department.
JM:Are you in SWASA?
MB:Well, I volunteer in the winter time, but it is not, I don’t belong to the organization.
MB:Yes, one of my few paying jobs I actually work part time for the town of Salisbury as a Marine Patrolman and police officer.
JM:How many Marine Patrolmen are there?
MB:We are just about to hire 2 more. When I first came on the job 20 some years ago, there were about 8 or 12. Over the years people have retired and moved away. I am the last one left. So we are going to hire a couple more. We are responsible primarily in the summertime to make sure that the waterways are safe. Whether it is the Housatonic River, Lakeville Lake, Long Pond, East or West Twin Lake, we wander around to keep the peace and make sure that people are conducting themselves in a safe manner. We make sure they are doing the safe thing. It is more of a safety issue; unfortunately over the years we have had some water accidents and some people have lost their lives. We are out there trying to prevent that. It is critical. The rest of the year the constable or police covers SWASA events over the winter or cover Eater Sunday parade or whatever event is going on. Lately there has been a rash of funerals of very large size so we have been out doing traffic details. We try to take care of the needs. There is a very diverse group of duties.
JM:But it uses the same set of skills. I know I asked you before, but I am going to ask you again. Why do you do this?
MB:it was a natural thing in the beginning. I developed it into a very good skill set. I felt good about doing it. You see people in the worst part of their lives when you see them as the fire department or the ambulance or even from the police side. They are having that moment in their life where everything has just turned to crap. We try to help them get through that as unlumpy as possible.
JM:Good professional term! Yes, you are right. They are at the bottom of the barrel and they need help. As I said to roger yesterday for someone that has had a stroke or a heart attack or something, it is comforting to have somebody that they know. That makes a great deal of difference because you are not in the hands of strangers. It is somebody that you know; it is a neighbor. That is itself just showing up, never mind if you know anything, just showing up makes such a big difference. Is there anything that you would like to add to what you do, or about the ambulance service before we close?
MB:I don’t think so; I think we have covered it all.
JM:Thank you very much for your time and all your skill sets.