Still answering the call
Hollidaysburg American Legion launched ambulance service for community 82 years ago
HOLLIDAYSBURG — The automobile changed the face of America.
Travel, tourism, shipping, commerce: the benefits seemed endless, and Blair County residents were quick to seize on the trend in 1909 by establishing one of the nation’s oldest gas stations — Reighard’s, 3205 Sixth Ave. — which is still operational today.
But the newly paved highways brought more to the area than just shoppers, workers and innovators: Vehicle accidents were trending upward.
In 1915, vehicle accidents were deemed responsible for about 6,600 fatalities nationwide, whereas railroad transportation was cited as responsible for only about 200 fatalities, according to the National Museum of American History. By 1925, vehicle fatalities skyrocketed to about 22,000, nearly quadrupling in the space of decade, while railroad transportation fatalities declined to about 170.
The veterans of American Legion Post No. 516 “Fort Fetter” in Hollidaysburg realized more and more people needed to get to the hospital in Altoona, and they needed to do it fast.
Pooling their funds together in 1939, the post purchased a 1937 LaSalle ambulance and began providing the area with an emergency transportation service, later dubbed the American Legion Ambulance Club of Hollidaysburg.
After 82 years, numerous ambulances, several home bases and multiple generations of volunteers, the ambulance club is still in operation, albeit under a different name: Hollidaysburg American Legion Ambulance Service.
‘Call and haul’
Initially founded as a free service for the community, local post members soon discovered the demand for emergency transportation was too high to sustain indefinitely, HALAS Executive Director Jessica Sorge said.
“About a decade after buying their first ambulance, they formed the ambulance club, which provided something like insurance,” Sorge said, explaining membership guaranteed expedient access to ambulance services. “Something we still do today.”
Starting in 1952, Hollidaysburg area households had access to the ambulance services for $2 a year. About 200 households signed on in the first year, and by 1957, the club was up to 500 members with an added $5 fee per run for nonmembers using the service.
“Back in those days, we didn’t offer much in the way of medical treatment — most of us had little or no medical training — so it was basically just a ‘call and haul’ service,” said 77-year-old Jerry Corbin, a member of the HALAS board of directors and former ambulance attendant.
Corbin started working with the club at the age of 14, and a photo of his father, Alvin, still hangs in the HALAS headquarters entryway.
Corbin’s sister, Debby Stitt, said their father was among the original directors of the club at a time when everyone was a volunteer.
“Everything around our house was either ambulance- or fire-related,” Stitt recalled. “I think I probably started doing the billing for the ambulance club when I was 10.”
Long before Corbin used a Phoenix Fire Company ladder truck to set the rafters in HALAS’ first official home base on Wayne Street, the ambulance operated out of a gas station on Allegheny Street.
“Sam Downing’s gas station on Allegheny between Spring Street and Condron Street,” Corbin recalled.
When the gas station was no longer an option, they parked the ambulance in Perry William’s garage.
“The space was so tight you had to back it in until the bumper touched the wall or you wouldn’t get the door closed,” Corbin remembered, chuckling.
In 1967, about a year after Corbin returned from serving in the Vietnam War, construction began on the ambulance club’s Wayne Street facility, which provided them the ability to purchase a second ambulance, keeping pace with the mounting demand.
The building was dedicated in 1970, and in 1972, the ambulance club recruited its first female ambulance attendant, Jane Carles.
Prior to the 1970s, ambulance attendants provided scant medical treatment for their passengers.
“We fought long and hard for the training and certification to provide better care,” Corbin said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health sponsored the area’s first ambulance attendant training class — a 40-hour course — in 1973, and by 1975, Hollidaysburg first responders had access to federal Emergency Medical Technician classes, HALAS records stated.
As training opportunities increased, so too did local, state and federal policies regulating ambulance services and personnel, Sorge said.
On paper, the ambulance club broke away from the American Legion, primarily for liability reasons, but the two remained intrinsically linked. Nowadays, 50% of HALAS board of directors are appointed American Legion members, Sorge said.
In 1988, HALAS was granted status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“We don’t receive municipal funding, so as a nonprofit, we are eligible for a number of tax breaks that allow us to continue providing the community a high-level of service,” Sorge said.
Despite their nonprofit status, fundraising only covers about 2% of HALAS’ annual budget, Corbin said. The rest comes through grant funding, membership fees and insurance reimbursements.
During the late ’80s, the organization hired its first employee.
“He was a janitor,” Corbin said, unable to recall the man’s name. “He kept the place clean, and responded to daytime calls, because it was hard to get volunteers during working hours.”
Shortly thereafter, a full-time manager position was added as well as pay options for an additional five paramedics and 10 EMTs.
On their toes
Today, HALAS operates a fleet of nine ambulances, a squad truck and utilizes a team of full-time and part-time first responders based out of its newest facility, built in 1997 on Scotch Valley Road.
But, volunteers remain essential to the everyday operations.
“We couldn’t do this without our volunteers,” Sorge said. “We rely on grants to help purchase a good amount of our equipment, and we don’t have a dedicated grant writer, so our volunteers step up.”
First responders are typically underpaid for their expertise, Sorge said, but HALAS’ roster of emergency personnel are dedicated to their community and their craft, which keeps them competitive in a county where ambulance service providers vie for municipal contracts and larger coverage areas.
“But, it’s important to us that we continue to serve our community without making it a business,” she said. “This was started by men and women who did it on their own time, because the need arose. And, we feel it’s important to continue that legacy.”
For Corbin, who remembers a time before two-way radios were commonplace in ambulances, the world of first responders is barely recognizable.
“We ran the first 911 dispatch in the area, and we did it out of the mayor’s office,” he recalled. “It was cramped and stuffy, but we loved what we did. I never imagined it would all get to the size it is now, but if we continue to hire dedicated people like Jessica Sorge, I know we’ll be around for decades to come.”