This was not an emergency—such as those he saw on TV that inspired him to start his ambulance service—but rather he was to take an elderly woman from her house to a nursing facility.
This was an eye opener, he said, because it became the model for service that he would follow for the next 40 years, providing the kind of care he might expect to give someone in his own family, not just after an accident, but also for a more ordinary, yet just as life-changing an experience as that first trip.
After 40 years, he and his son Michael still operate the same way.
Someone once asked Mickey what his vision was when he started; he said he didn’t have one.
“How did I get in business? Back in the 1970s, there was a TV show called “Emergency.” At that time, there was the Los Angeles County Fire Department, John and Roy were the paramedics, Dixie was the nurse in the Emergency Room, and they were doing tremendous things. I wondered why couldn’t we do that here in New Jersey.”
Over the years, McCabe and his ambulance service have been involved in nearly every major event from the first and second attacks on the World Trade Center (from which Mickey escaped a minute before the collapse) to the so-called Miracle on the Hudson when a jet made an emergency landing on the river. His service will be involved with the Super Bowl in 2014 at MetLife Stadium and Formula One racing in Weehawken and West New York.
Deeply involved with many of the essential services countywide, such as the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management, Mickey McCabe and his service have been at the forefront of many innovations in medical emergency service since 1973. McCabe is the ambulance provider for Bayonne, fire and police, the New Jersey Turnpike exchanges in Hudson County, Port Authority facilities, including the Bayonne Bridge, the state police, as well as the 911 medical response network for Hoboken and Bayonne.
Celebrating 40 years in service
Standing in the conference room of McCabe Ambulance in early August, Mickey McCabe and his son, Michael, were joined by officials with CarePoint Heath—which includes Bayonne Medical Center, Christ Hospital in Jersey City, and Hoboken University Medical Center—and others to help mark the occasion.
Located across the street from where Mickey grew up and within a few blocks of Hudacko’s Pharmacy where he cut his teeth learning medical service, the McCabe Ambulance office with its banks of communication systems have become a vital link for medical services not just in Bayonne, but also in Hoboken and elsewhere in Hudson County.
This office takes 911 medical calls from Bayonne and Hoboken. In Hoboken, the volunteer team is first. If they are busy, McCabe sends an ambulance.
McCabe predates the 911 system, which did not come into existence until the 1980s.
“Prior to that you had to dial a seven-digit number, a hospital or police headquarters,” Mickey said.
He started out with one phone at his house on 41st Street. If he didn’t answer it, his wife did. If his wife didn’t, his mother did. She would come downstairs and answer the phone if he couldn’t. This was 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mickey is a graduate of what was then St. Peter’s College with a degree in business administration.
He said jokingly that he didn’t get offered any prestigious jobs he thought he ought to get.
While college hadn’t prepared him for the medical field, his earlier experiences in the pharmacy had.
“That’s where I learned how to run retail. I started at 11 years old working in Hudacko's Pharmacy,” he said. “I worked there for 15 years. So I had a background in medicine. So I said why don’t we do the same thing they’re doing in Los Angeles here in New Jersey, have EMTs.
In those days, the hospital ran the ambulance service and it was not uncommon for an ambulance to take 20 to 25 minutes to get to a call. And the first thing they would ask when they got there: `Is there anything wrong with your legs?’ If you said no, then they would say, `Fine, walk with us.’ This was even if you were having chest pains or dizziness, no matter what it was, you walked. I said, this doesn’t sound right. My wife is a registered nurse. She would hear all these stories. So I thought, why don’t I buy an ambulance.”
The first ambulance he ever rode in was the one he bought. “And I didn’t even buy an ambulance,” Mickey said. “I bought a Dodge van and took it to Brooklyn and had it converted into an ambulance. I could tell that it was not something they had done previously because after two weeks of smelling gasoline, I realized they had drilled holes through the floor into the gas tank. So it had to go back for repair. The good news is we didn’t miss any jobs, because we didn’t have any. Those were very lean times.”
A lot of firsts in Bayonne and in the state
Mickey said he took the emergency concept and introduced it to New Jersey.
“I went through the first class for EMTs ever in Bayonne and the second class ever in the state of New Jersey,” he said. “We were out in the forefront of something we had no idea what it would be. There was no vision. There was no plan.”
Ambulance drivers didn’t need an EMT license. You just stuck your number in the phonebook.
Until that point, in most communities throughout the country, it was the local funeral director who ran the ambulance service.
“This was because he had a vehicle where you could lay flat,” Mickey said.
His van provided more room to work in.
“I started with myself and four part-time employees. I gave them $5 a job,” Mickey said. “Sometimes they made $20 in a week.”
Mickey often sat on the steps of his house just waiting for a job to come in.
Times were so bad at one point, he even considered filing for bankruptcy. The only reason he didn’t is that he didn’t have the $25 fee.
Eventually nurses at the hospital and the police department—frustrated by the length of time the contracted ambulances took—started to call McCabe.
“They would give me the address and I would go and would be gone from the scene by the time the hospital ambulance showed up,” he said.
He began to do a lot of nonemergency work as well.
Mickey’s son, Michael, who currently heads McCabe Ambulance, hated blood and guts, but since Mickey was always on duty even when he went to the store, Michael often got dragged out on calls with him.
“He would stay inside the truck and wouldn’t come out,” Mickey said. “Now, his medical training far exceeds mine.”
Michael currently is chief of operations, and said he only got into the family business after college until he could figure out what else he wanted to do, and slowly became immersed in it.
Back when Mickey started, McCabe averaged 30 calls a month.
“We thought that was awesome, now we average that in an hour,” he said. “Today, we have over 125 employees.”
As a result of 9/11, the McCabe fleet of equipment has advanced to meet greater threats, such as mass-casualty situations, and it has instituted more training for the staff.
In 1982, Bayonne Hospital had a contract with the city, and the city under Mayor Dennis Collins, asked McCabe to take over ambulance service.
“We’ve had the city’s contract since 1982,” Mickey said.
“I’ve been on the streets of Bayonne in one way or another since I was ten years old,” Mickey said, “when I worked at Hudacko's as a delivery boy, when I worked for Public Service reading meters, and then I went into this business.”
He said he has been in nearly every house in Bayonne over the last 55 years.
“I would say over the last 40 years, we have probably touched the lives of every single family in Bayonne either directly or indirectly in the sense somebody’s cousin, relative, friend or in-law has been served by McCabe Ambulance,” Mickey said.
He said his is the only ambulance company in the state that has the owners’ name on the side. This is because he wanted clients to know who to blame if something went wrong.
“My staff knows when they go somewhere people tell them: `Do that right because I know Mickey, I’ll call him right now.’ They hear it all the time,” Mickey said.
On Oct. 25, McCabe will hold its first reunion ever, bringing together as many of those associated with the company as possible.
“I’m going to try to find all of the staff who have ever been here and invite them to tell their stories about the way things used to be,” Mickey said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.