NJ EMT nears five decades in EMS

He still loves the work even though it seems stairs are getting steeper and patients are heavier

By the time Ken Koenitzer arrives at the West Orange (New Jersey) First Aid Squad for duty, he’s already volunteered more of his time that day than most members.

“It’s 98 miles from my house to West Orange,” Koenitzer says.

Koenitzer has nothing against EMS in Kidder Township, Pennsylvania where he and his wife, Nancy, have lived since 2008; it’s just that Koenitzer’s connection to rescue in West Orange goes back more than a few years – 48, to be exact.

Ken Koenitzer.
Ken Koenitzer. (Image Chet Lloyd )

“I grew up there,” the 71-year-old EMT explains.

“You’re talking late 1940s into the mid ‘50s. We didn’t have TV or even a car. I guess you could say we were poor, but it doesn’t seem that way when everyone around you is in the same boat.”

Responded to natural disaster that killed 2,000 citizens of Longarone, Italy

Koenitzer’s inspiration to become an EMT came from an unusual source.

“I joined the Army when I was18,” he recalls. “They sent me to missile school in Huntsville, Alabama. From there I went to Italy and ended up in Vicenza – not far from what used to be called Yugoslavia.

“On October 9th, 1963 – I’ll never forget the date – a piece of the Alps (Monte Toc) near the village of Longarone broke off and fell into a lake. The ‘splash’ made a huge wave that swept over a dam and into the village below. Two thousand people died

“They called us in to help, but what could we do? There was nothing left of Longarone. All we did is spread lime over the entire area. Six months later they were still finding bodies downstream in Venice.

“When I saw all those dead people, I thought maybe I’d like to do something more than just watch next time. That’s when I started thinking about EMS.”

Homeward bound to become an EMT

After his discharge, Koenitzer, joined his hometown rescue squad – all volunteer at the time.

“It was 1967.” says Koenitzer. “The days of the Cadillac ambulances. Some people I know still prefer them, even though they didn’t have much room. The insurance company said I wasn’t allowed to drive them until I turned 25.

“CPR was new. You took standard first aid for 8-10 hours, then advanced first aid for maybe another 30. That’s it for training.”

Koenitzer became an EMT in 1970 after he started working full-time for AT&T. His commute took him right past the West Orange squad. Before long he was volunteering six days a week.

“We run with in-house crews,” Koenitzer says. “It gets pretty busy. We’re up to 5,000 calls a year.”

“You don’t like to see people sick or injured, but that’s why we’re there.”

1st call was memorable welcome to EMS

Injured is most certainly what Koenitzer’s first patient was. The memory is still fresh.

“We go on a call for an elderly lady who fell through a glass shower door. As soon as we get there, the people downstairs were screaming for us to hurry upstairs. When I saw the patient, all I could think was, my God; there was blood everywhere. We patched her up as best we could and held pressure to her wounds on the way to the hospital.

“I’m not sure what finally happened to her, but I remember we had to throw out all those Good Humor-style white uniforms we were wearing because they were covered with blood. When it was all over, one of the more experienced guys who was riding with me said, ‘Welcome to EMS, kid.’”

Retirement from EMS – almost

Koenitzer maintained his EMT certification until he and Nancy moved to Florida in 2000.

“I had just retired from AT&T and wanted to live somewhere less expensive where I could maybe work part time. I was with Disney for a few years, doing security and driving shuttle buses.

“In 2008, after moving to Colorado briefly, we decided we wanted to come back east where our kids were. We couldn’t afford Jersey so we moved to the Poconos, across the border from Jersey in Pennsylvania.”

Koenitzer called the New Jersey Department of Health to see about reinstating his EMT card.

“I spoke to some guy who remembered me from before. He said I could challenge the EMT course, so I re-read the whole Brady book and passed the exam. I’ve been an EMT since.”

Moving forward, looking back

The 2000s have seen drastic changes for some EMS volunteers.

“We’ve hired per-diems because it’s getting harder for folks to put in the time,” says Koenitzer.

“People say they want to help the community, but then they hear about 240 hours for EMT courses plus CEUs and all the other training. They feel like you’re asking them to go back to college.”

As for Ken Koenitzer, as he approaches his 72nd birthday, he knows he’ll have to give up EMS someday soon. But whether that day is this month or next year or beyond, he can’t say.

“According to my wife, I should have given it up already. She tells me I’m like the Energizer Bunny: I just keep going.

“I realize my time is limited. It feels like stairs are getting steeper and patients are getting heavier. I don’t want to hurt myself or anyone else.

“The thing is, I love what I do.”

Not a bad way to end half a century of caring.

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