But for the dedicated members, other than a glad handshake and fleeting displays of gratitude, the rewards are few.
Except for one night a year, when the members of the squad get together and honor the efforts of the past year with their annual awards banquet. This year's dinner was held last Saturday night at the city's Chart House restaurant for the first time, because the Weehawken Elks Lodge remains closed.
This dinner and installation of officers had a special meaning because of the events of Sept. 11, when more than half of the 30 members of the squad were called into full-time emergency duty.
Squad Vice President Tom Cheplic, who was sworn into office for his second term as the second in command to long-time President Jeff Welz, will never forget the World Trade Center tragedy and the effect it had on his squad.
Cheplic was teaching music at P.S. No. 1 in West New York when the terrorist planes hit the Twin Towers. "Jeff called me and said, 'How fast can you get here?'" Cheplic recalled.
In a morbid coincidence, while the tragedy was unfolding in lower Manhattan, the students at P.S. No. 1 were being evacuated because of a bomb threat. "When I hung up the phone, I first had the responsibility of 1,100 students because we were in the middle of a bomb scare at the school. We had to move the kids to St. Joseph [of the Palisades]," Cheplic said. "Once we were given the clearance to move them back, then there was pandemonium in front of the school, with parents wanting to take back their children. Once the children were accounted for, then I was off."
Cheplic and many of his colleagues in the squad spent most of the next 15 hours coordinating emergency medical services that were being prepared for Weehawken.
"We kept getting reports that Jersey City and Hoboken were being overwhelmed with treating the injured, so we basically were on alert that the injured were coming to us in Weehawken," Cheplic said. "No one knew for sure. We had reports of ferries loaded with injured people coming to Weehawken, so we had to be ready, to make sure we had the resources to help these people."
There was an emergency treatment area situated right outside the NY Waterway ferry terminal and a triage center set up nearby. The gymnasium at Weehawken High School was turned into an emergency shelter and there was also a decontamination area near the ferry.
"We literally had 60,000 people pass by us and receive some sort of services from us," Cheplic said. "We played a huge role. Although luckily, it was never as bad for us as we thought it would be, we did treat and help so many people. We broke down our operations at 10 p.m., but we still had to restock the ambulances back together because we had no idea what the next day would bring. And we still had to worry about the residents. We still had to function as if nothing was going on across the river."
Cheplic said that he will never forget what it was like to endure that day. "It was so horrific, being down there and seeing everything," he said. "It was so surreal, like I could almost reach out and touch it. I hope I never have to experience anything close to it ever again."
The squad will never forget the events of the day. Although Cheplic didn't know it at the time, he lost three dear friends in the tragedy, two of whom, Port Authority police officers David Lemagne and Robert Cirri, were former members of the squad. Cheplic said he also worked closely with another PA officer lost in the tragedy, John Scala.
"At first, it was an abstract number, but then it became Bob and Dave and John," Cheplic said. "They will never be forgotten."
At the awards dinner, the squad wanted to honor the memory of their fallen colleagues, especially Cirri, who spent many years as a member. In his memory, the squad renamed the annual award given to the member who responds to the most calls during the calendar year. It is now the Lt. Robert T. Cirri Memorial Award and it was presented this year to Robert McMahon, who responded to 210 calls.
The award was presented to McMahon with Cirri's ex-wife, Judi, also a long-time member of the Squad, and son Robert, Jr., who recently became a new member.
"Bobby is carrying the torch in honor of his father," Cheplic said. "We wanted to do something to remember Bob and honor his family. This was the perfect way and it was the defining moment of the evening."
Cheplic said that it was important to have a dinner to honor those who gave so much of their time and their efforts.
"Everyone really had a magnificent time," Cheplic said. "It was a special night, a very personal night, more so than any other. I think there was a little more gravity to this dinner." Cheplic said that the core membership remains strong, although it gets more difficult to find new members.
"We've been on a membership roller coaster ride," Cheplic said. "We pick up a few and lose a few. But we're able to keep our head above water. We have some people, like Bob Schwartz, who dedicates his life to the squad. We have others who do far more than their share and go the extra yard. Ten years ago, there weren't the jobs in the EMT field that we have now. It's hard to get volunteers when they can get paying jobs. We've been fortunate to keep a good, dedicated nucleus." Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad Officers
President Jeff Welz, 22nd term
Vice President Thomas Cheplic, second term
Captain Robert McMahon, first term
First Lieutenant Phyllis Walsh, first term
Second Lieutenant Numargo Vasquez, second term
Second Lieutenant J. Brian Mera, first term
Treasurer Al Berg, first term
Secretary Wayne Lavoie, 14th term
Assistant Secretary Giovanni Ahmad, second term
Award winners Responded to 100 calls: Al Berg, Albert Pilone, Jerene Robbins, Eva Solar, Jalmir "Jim" Walsh, Michelle Zeron
Responded to 250 calls: Giovanni Ahmad, Mayra Baez, Mary Ciuffitelli, Brian Mera, Wilbert Negron, Jerene Robbins
Responded to 750 calls: Robert Walker, Phyllis Walsh
Responded to 1,500 calls: Joseph Burns
"2000 Club" (2,000 calls in a career): Robert Schwartz
Life Membership (10 years of service): James Gaffey, Phyllis Walsh
Lt. Robert T. Cirri Memorial Award (Most calls responded to in 2001): Robert McMahon (210 calls)