No emergency medical technician wants to see a day like last Friday in Sandy Hook.
Newtown's Volunteer Ambulance Corps (NVAC) were among the first on the scene after police. Secretary-Treasurer Jordan Reed told Patch he started getting texts between 9:30 and 10 a.m. saying "something weird was happening." He rushed away from his day job to man the control center in the back room of their headquarters at 77 Main St.
On Friday, around 35 EMTs responded to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Most of the first responders went in at the beginning and didn't come out for five hours, he said — it was getting dark when NVAC sent in the second crew to relieve the first responders.
For EMTs, work never stops, he said — and they could only face their feelings after first helping a town in need. The days ahead were difficult, Reed said. Some residents and families needed comfort. And calls didn't stop coming in.
"It's days like Friday that you really sometimes ask: being volunteer and not being paid, why do I keep doing what I do?" said Reed. "And while that's a hard question, it comes down to: you want to be there for the community. You like being available to help when you can. It's rough on us, but not nearly as rough as the families. And in the coming weeks, we'll still be there."
After five days, NVAC opened its doors to media Wednesday for the first time since the tragedy. The organization is an all-volunteer corps, made up of about 70 Newtown residents with EMT certifications, and they've been serving Newtown since the 1940s. The largest volunteer ambulance corps in the state, said Reed, they handle more than 2,200 calls annually, and their volunteers log more than 30,000 hours every year.
Like the rest of the community, members of the corps were grieving, too. Every night after Friday, Reed said, the corps comes back to the garage at headquarters. It's a chance to be among friends — a second family for many, he said, people who understand each other through their shared experiences.
"And even if we're not talking about Friday," he said, "At least we're always around people who know what you're going through."
The first responder mentality is to get the job done and worry about it later. It's a common state of mind for emergency professionals. But there has to be a time for reflection, Reed said.
"Everyone goes on autopilot," he said. "You're here to do a job and you have to focus on that. And that's exactly what people did, whether they were [at the station] and overwhelmed, or on scene and dealing with seeing some awful stuff and trying to help families. When you get back here and started to realize the scope of it, it started to hit."
Maintaining the ambulance fleet is important, but funding is limited, and it takes priority over facilities for the volunteers who sometimes come close to living at headquarters. They're in the process of funding a new building, and Reed said they could use new equipment and training rooms. The facility is small enough that two can barely walk abreast in the winding back hallways, and only one bed is available for the 24/7 volunteers — everyone else sleeps on couches in the rec room.
Fortunately, they haven't been alone since Friday. Emergency corps from California to Maine have offered them help. They've offered coverage for Christmas to allow EMTs much-needed time to spend with their families. But Newtown's volunteer ambulance corps are still working, even if it's just helping the community heal.
"The first responders here [were sometimes] helping by holding a family's hand or trying to get a glass of water — you shift gears," he said. "It's not the EMS mentality to go in and have nothing to do. When we realized there was nothing to be done, we shifted gears and it became about helping. Our EMTs and other EMTs stepped up to the plate."
And coverage continues.
"We were there for them on Friday," Reed said. "But as an ambulance corps, we've always been here, and we'll continue to be here."