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Will Help Come in Time?

Volunteers Nefritte Larkin and Ron Davis on duty with the ambulance corps
photo: Brian Wilcox

The trauma van pulled up to an accident scene on a Brooklyn street awash in the red and blue of fire-truck lights. A white-haired woman sat stunned and injured in a mangled brown station wagon. A dazed passenger stumbled around the smoking wreck, surveying the damage.

"Let's go!" said Chris Womble, a volunteer with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BSVAC), who drove the van of teenage trainees in emergency medicine. The double doors opened and five young people jumped into action, led by Darren Id-deen, 17. Before a single city ambulance had arrived, he was in the backseat of the car and had begun checking the woman's injuries. When the emergency medical crews did arrive minutes later, Id-deen helped secure a neckbrace on her and get her onto a gurney.

The speedy response of the BSVAC is a boon to this hard-pressed Brooklyn neighborhood. Before the corps started, city and private ambulances took up to a half an hour to get to a scene, according to James "Rocky" Robinson, the group's founder. And he should know. Robinson supervised medical technicians for the Fire Department prior to starting the corps. When his ambulances are on duty, he said, which is three or four nights a week, help arrives in under five minutes.

"Rocky really knows the community and the trouble spots. [The corps] has really come along and made a difference," said Elton Mohammed, a former police officer with the 81st precinct, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mohammed said that BSVAC ambulances regularly beat both the police and the NYFD to accident scenes.


By the early 1990s, the volunteers were a cause célèbre among charities, drawing attention from the likes of then president George Bush, who designated them a "point of light."

Rocky Robinson's ambulance corps has been doing this work with only the barest funding for 13 years, but now the group has had to cut back service and may be evicted from its headquarters. The news came from the City Department of Real Estate Services, which gave Robinson until July 27 to provide proof of over $2.5 million in insurance coverage for the property on Marcus Garvey Boulevard. Robinson has some coverage through the Division of Youth Services and has requested that any new fees be waived. He is currently waiting for an answer.

The organization run out of these trailers is much more than an ambulance service. Many neighborhood teens—by Robinson's estimate, over 1000—volunteering as "Trauma Troopers", have become certified emergency medical technicians after taking classes with the BSVAC.

To keep his program from shutting down though, Robinson will have to raise more than the $45,000 generated last year, which he said is a fraction of what they need to operate properly. The corps's funding is now mostly private gifts, compared to the nearly $250,000 BSVAC once received from foundations and government agencies.

The first casualties of its funding losses were the EMT certification classes for teens. Another canceled program trained adults on public assistance. The same EMT volunteers show up repeatedly for the few nights the ambulances run. Robinson has been warning that the corps was about to go under for several years, in various news profiles on the group's heroics. But a visit to BSVAC headquarters confirms the severity of the need.

The two forlorn BSVAC trailers on the corner of Greene Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard, once white but now a dingy yellow, function as classroom, dispatch headquarters, T-shirt store, and storerooms. "We just took the lot over as squatters," Robinson recalled. "It used to be a drug den. We kicked them out." Several recall one night when one trailer took a spray of bullets. The faux wood that panels the cramped interior is coming up in places, and on a summer night, a carpenter spent hours replacing caved-in floorboards.

While Fire Department spokesman and EMT David Billig said that it's "never a good thing" when a volunteer unit closes and that the BSVAC "supplements the coverage provided by the city," he denied that Bed-Stuy emergency service would be compromised if the corps were to fold. He cited statistics that show response times in Brooklyn have sped up by about three minutes in recent years.

Robinson countered that if area response times have improved, it's because the NYFD was embarrassed by his group getting to emergencies faster. This claim, of course, cannot be proved. He had few kind words for his former employers, an organization that he says is "prejudiced."

Rocky Robinson said he started his volunteer ambulance service in 1988 after a gust of wind slammed a Fire Department ambulance door into his head, impairing his vision and forcing him out of his job. Well aware that Bed-Stuy deserved better emergency care, he set up shop near his home. The group's first emergency responses were on foot.

By the early 1990s, the volunteers were a cause célèbre among charities, drawing attention from the likes of the Robin Hood Foundation and then president George Bush, who designated them a "point of light." His group received enough money to buy ambulances and the trauma van, and to run the EMT certification classes. But last year, the corps received only $20,000 from an anonymous donor, $20,000 from Assemblyman Al Vann, and $5000 from the Brooklyn borough president.

David Saltzman of Robin Hood told New York magazine last year that his group had stopped funding the corps because of bad bookkeeping, after initial investments worth several hundred thousand dollars. "We offered to pay for an accountant," Saltzman said then, "but it just never worked."

"They thought I was arrogant," said Rocky, as he sold lemonade and fish dinners outside the BSVAC trailer, part of his latest fundraising efforts. Damage was done, though, by the New York article. Nonetheless, still cavalier when pressed for funding figures or the exact number of students his programs have trained, Robinson was apt to give conflicting answers or forget details.

"I'm not an accountant. I'm not an administrator. I'm a trainer, an instructor, and I have a dream," he said, adding that he would gladly give up those duties to another manager. As a trainer, though, he's made a lasting impression. Deborah Crawford, for instance, was on public assistance when Robinson convinced her to start volunteering in 1988.

"There was a shooting one night, and there weren't enough volunteers around, so I went," she said. The victim, shot in the head, died in the ambulance. "I got sick as a dog. But the adrenaline rush I got from that call started me riding ambulances." She recalled victims with multiple gunshot wounds stumbling into the trailer and collapsing. Crawford has been a city EMT for 10 years, and two of her kids are EMTs.

Before Steve Hipp joined the Troopers, he said, he had problems with alcohol and marijuana. In 1987, he watched as his grandmother died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital, following an asthma attack. Soon afterward, he stopped by the BSVAC and Robinson invited him to join the group. He promised the teen, "I'll take care of you." Hipp is now sober and is engaged to a nurse he met on the job. He said he'll train to be a paramedic, improving his $10-per-hour EMT wage to about $35,000 a year.

Stories like Hipp's fuel Rocky Robinson's rising frustration. "The kids I deal with don't have gangbangers as their idols now," he said. And Bed-Stuy residents wince at the thought that the corps may have to stop operating.

"Mr. Robinson does a great job—he looks out for the kids, gives them money when they need it, and there's always food at the trailers," said Lisa Mitchell, a secretary who lives down the street from the BSVAC home. "It would be tragic if they had to close. I know for a fact emergency care here in Bed-Stuy would suffer."

"They're a blessing for the community," agreed Joe Long, the outgoing chairman of the local Community Board 3. "Someone needs to come in and help them out."


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