Reliable emergency medical transportation is something we take for granted these days. Especially in these COVID19 days, we all rest comfortably knowing that an EMT and an ambulance are just a 911 phone call away. But things weren’t always that way. This week we are going to take a look at how this vital public service began in our fair town.
To paraphrase my learned predecessor in the chronicling of North Kingstown’s history, newspaperman John Ward of West Main Street, “North Kingstown’s Ambulance service was inaugurated thanks to a huge pile of rusty junk.” That wise old Swamp Yankee was right on the money as usual. You see, as a part of the war effort during WWII, all towns were urged to form Salvage Committees to help round up vitally needed raw materials that could be utilized as America “tooled up” for the fight to come. North Kingstown was no exception, and throughout the winter of 1942 and into the spring of ’43, a small army of volunteers totaling over 200 townfolks, utilizing 40 trucks, collected scrap iron, tin foil and tin cans, scrap copper and brass, scrap rubber, newspapers, and even used cooking oil. The US government was not interested in the funds generated from these drives; what they wanted was to get these raw materials available for the construction of everything from aircraft carriers to tanks to bullets and all in between. So the NK Salvage Committee, which had rounded up more than 300 tons of scrap iron alone, was left with a good chunk of money after it was all over. They met in committee and decided that the best use of the money they had raised would be to fund the beginnings of an ambulance service for the community. On June 2, 1943 they brought the idea before the town’s people at a meeting and it was approved unanimously. In September of 1943 the newly formed North Kingstown Ambulance Association accepted delivery of a small beige 1942 Chevrolet Stylemaster ambulance with an all steel body and shatterproof glass throughout. The ambulance was at first housed in Kenyon’s Garage (now demolished) located at the intersection of Tower Hill and Ten Rod Road.
The NK Ambulance Association operated as a subscription service. Families interested in joining paid $2.50 per year to guarantee that they would get transportation to the nearest hospital should the need arise. Families in nearby Exeter were also allowed to join providing that they paid an additional per mile stipend up to the North Kingstown-Exeter town line. The Ambulance Association was staffed entirely by trained volunteers that were divided up into three crews of 10-12 volunteers, these crews rotated “on-call” coverage for one week at a time. There were also three registered nurse volunteers as well, with one assigned to each crew. Dispatching and crew call-out was handled by the North Kingstown Fire Dept. In that first year they made 123 runs covering 5100 miles.
In 1948, the Association raised funds to purchase a larger ambulance and it was delivered in May of that year. To save the Association some money, long time volunteer Harry Lewis took a train out to the factory in Loudonville Ohio, picked up the brand new Buick ambulance and drove it back to North Kingstown; Harry made it back in time to drive it in the Memorial Day parade.
In January of 1949, the Ambulance Association purchased the former Wickford Methodist Episcopal Church building on West Main Street and had it converted into their headquarters by local contractor Paul Arnold. By the spring of that year they were settled in their new home. Things went along fine until the 1954 Hurricane when the building was flooded and the ambulance ruined. A new ambulance was purchased with insurance proceeds and arrived in 1955. By 1961 the town had grown so much due to activities at Quonset Davisville that a second ambulance was required.
The North Kingstown Ambulance Assoc. continued to provide vital service to the town until the early 1980’s, when a dispute between the FCC and the Town caused them to close up shop. The Federal Communication Commission objected to the town using its radio license to dispatch for the non-profit but separate entity. Unable to come up with the thousands of dollars required to establish their own radio license, the Association pulled up stakes and relocated to Exeter where it still provides quality timely emergency response to the citizens of our neighboring town. North Kingstown in response to this turn of events had to beef up its fire department to fill in the gap left by the loss of the association.
Over the 60 years that this all-volunteer operation existed in town, hundreds of folks gave of themselves to keep their neighbors safe. They came from all walks of life; religious leaders, medical professionals, newspapermen, teachers, carpenters, truck drivers and the like. They all stood ready to head out into the night to help their fellow man expecting only the gratitude they deserved as a reward.