THE BIRTH OF A TRADITION
What began as a one-ambulance department operating out of a tiny garage in Upper Northwest Washington, D.C., has evolved into one of the best-trained, best-equipped rescue squads in the nation. A tradition of “Answering the Call” was born that continues to this day, as the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad continues its life-saving services to the community.
In 1937, area resident Don Dunnington recognized the dire need for ambulance service in Chevy Chase. With generous donations from the community, Dunnington and a small group of co-founders organized the “Chevy Chase First-Aid Corps.” Operating at first with one ambulance from a tiny garage at 38th Street & Military Road, N.W., the group handled emergency calls, routine transports, and first aid coverage at public events. Staffing was ensured by picking up firemen or policemen on the way to the calls. After a three-year interruption during World War II, the group reformed in 1945 as the Bethesda-Chevy Chase First Aid Corps and began operations using an ambulance donated by the Bethesda Civitan Club. The Corps later acquired a rescue truck to provide rescue service at fires and vehicle collisions, soon to be followed by the acquisition of additional ambulances.
By 1946, the organization–now renamed the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad–began to capture national and international attention. Extensive media coverage resulted from a number of sensational calls, and articles on the Squad and its stellar training, dedication, and volunteer spirit appeared in major publications. “Whenever lives are at stake, Maryland’s volunteer squad of young citizens roars to the rescue, ready for any emergency,” proclaimed a 1949 issue of Coronet, a national magazine. In 1950, the U.S. Department of State produced a film about the Squad entitled “Wisconsin 1000 Rescue Squad,” named after the Squad’s 24-hour emergency telephone number. The State Department eventually printed the film in ten different languages and circulated it around the world.
In 1978, current and former members of the Rescue Squad founded the Alumni Association of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad to preserve the Squad’s history, to support the operations of the Rescue Squad, and to perpetuate the bonds of friendship among long-time Squad members. Another group within the Squad, the Ladies Auxiliary, continued to operate its mobile kitchen at fires and disasters and to assist in fundraising efforts.
Reflecting its growing size and increasing capabilities, the Rescue Squad has had many homes, starting at 38th Street and Military Road, then (in succession) a garage in the basement of the old Jelleff’s Department Store, a station on Fairmont Avenue, a station on Auburn Avenue, and its present headquarters at Battery Lane and Old Georgetown Road. To provide expanded service to the community, the Rescue Squad also operates an ambulance from the Democracy Boulevard station of the Bethesda Fire Department, and in 2021 added service from the Chevy Chase Fire Department station on Connecticut Avenue.
A POINT OF LIGHT
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush visited the Rescue Squad to help celebrate its 50th anniversary of volunteer service to the community. In declaring the Rescue Squad a “point of light,” he drew upon more than 200 years of American history and paid tribute to the Squad as an exemplar of civic virtue:
Young kids and retirees, executives and laborers–each of you, to quote the Squad’s original motto, has ‘answered the call.’ . . . [I]n 1990, with firefighters and EMS personnel today one million strong, I salute you, as does your community. . . . You save lives and you walk the path of engagement in the lives of those in need.
Remarks of President George H.W. Bush to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Bethesda, Maryland, April 25, 1990
Thank you all very much. From George to George, thank you. [Laughter] President Giebel, thank you very much, and Chief Dwyer and members of this marvelous Bethesda-Chevy Chase Volunteer Rescue Squad. And of course, I want to pay my respects to our county executive, Sidney Kramer — thank him for being with us today. Congressman Curt Weldon, an old friend of mine, a current Member of the United States Congress, is the founder of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, one of the most rapidly growing caucuses in the Congress and one that really has unanimous across-the-aisle support. So, Curt, I’m delighted to be with you.
And of course, I don’t need to say to you, her constituents, too much about my friend, your own friend, and our Representative in the United States Congress, Connie Morella. I will tell you, coming out, she wanted to be sure — you know Connie — she wanted to be sure I knew absolutely everything I needed to know; so she was telling me that it was — and she said it not in a partisan sense, but in a sense of civic commitment — that this is the heart and soul of the community. And she said that it enthusiastically let her have her announcement here, her victory celebration and, indeed, even her son’s wedding reception here. [Laughter]
So, in addition to other good works, I salute this organization for being the heart and soul, as Connie said, of the community. This is the organization that I spoke to as a Vice Presidential nominee in 1980, and I’m certainly glad to be back.
One reason that I’m so pleased to be here is that if my speech is a disaster, relief is at hand. [Laughter] Then, too, there’s another point that Curt and Connie and I were talking about coming out here: This week — it is National Volunteer Week, which celebrates the selfless character of the American people. National Volunteer Week salutes what I call this nation’s Points of Light, this vast galaxy of individuals and businesses and schools and churches and synagogues, unions and voluntary associations working together to solve problems. This rescue squad really is a Point of Light; it is also a source of life.
Many people don’t realize that fully 80 percent of America’s fire protection and emergency medical service is supplied by volunteers — an amazing total, absolutely amazing. And here’s the point: Volunteers who meet local emergencies — risking lives to save the lives of others, just as America’s firefighters have done for more than 200 years.
You know, being here today reminds me of a story that I heard, which happened a number of years ago. It seems that 25 of Boston’s top Prohibition bootleggers were rounded up in a surprise raid. And as they were being arraigned, the judge asked the usual question about the occupation. The first 24 men were engaged in the same profession — each claimed to be a firefighter. Well, naturally, the judge asked the last prisoner, “And what are you?” :”Your honor,” he said, “I’m a bootlegger.” Surprised, the judge laughed and asked, “And how’s business?” He said, “Well, it would be a hell of a lot better if there weren’t so many firefighters around.” [Laughter]
Well, you get the gist. Even back in Prohibition, your numbers turned the tide. Then, as now, volunteers like you were the first responder not only to fire but also to accidents and floods and cave-ins and collapsed buildings. Then, as now, you acted as the backbone of America, showing that any definition of a successful life must include serving others.
National volunteer work — it embodies that definition, as do your 50 years of service to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase community. Talk about variety: cats rescued from treetops; children from smashed automobiles; helping victims of heart attacks; and senior citizens, alone and vulnerable, after falls within their own home. Young kids and retirees, executives and laborers — each of you, to quote the squad’s original motto, has “answered the call.”
Listen to an anonymous letter that appeared on your bulletin board. It talked of the comfort the B-CC Rescue Squad provides. “You can watch people’s faces begin to relax just by your presence. And that gives you a special feeling.” And look at the man with me here, David Dwyer, chief of the squad for the past 21 years. He’s one of the heroes responsible for that feeling. And by day, he works at the NIH [National Institutes of Health]; at night, he’s a volunteer — anywhere there is a need, anytime he is needed.
So, by risking your lives to save others, you are on the front lines. And those who directly take up the fight against drug abuse, illiteracy, homelessness, hunger, environmental decay, and AIDS are also on the front lines. Like you, they are finding the meaning and the adventure that all of us seek in our own lives.
We know that life itself means nothing without a cause larger than ourselves. Firefighting was such a cause when, in 1736, Ben Franklin founded one of the first volunteer companies. And so it is in 1990, with firefighters and EMS [emergency medical service] personnel today 1 million strong. I salute you, as does your community. We respect and admire you for a job well done. Today America is grateful for your special brand of skill and courage, the courage to put another’s life before one’s own.
Let me close with a Bible verse that defines your lives: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” You and countless thousands of others like you around this great country serve strangers. You save lives, and you walk the path of engagement in the lives of those in need. And this really is the heartbeat of America and the true meaning of serving others.
Thank you for what you’ve done. I simply wanted to come out, down the street — through the skies, I will confess — [laughter] — but to say thank you from the bottom of a grateful heart. And I will try to continue to tell America how grateful we are for those who serve others. Thank you very, very much, and God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 2:05 p.m. outside the station house. He was introduced by George Giebel, president of the rescue squad.
STRIVING FOR EXCELLENCE
Not content to rest on its laurels, the Rescue Squad has ensured its continued success by maintaining a strong corps of volunteers and staff, anticipating changes in community needs, and adopting new training and medical practices. Along the way, the Rescue Squad has continued to acquire new equipment, thanks to the generous support of the community. The Rescue Squad has progressed from Cadillac ambulances to the present Freightliner chassis; transitioned from rescue squads with personnel riding on the back-step (the old GMCs and Kenworths) to fully enclosed cabs of today; acquired state-of-the-art rescue tools such as thermal imaging systems; created a confined space rescue team and a bicycle emergency response team; and designed and acquired a mobile cascade system.
Emergency Medical Services (EMS) is an area in which the Rescue Squad has consistently excelled. The Squad, which was the first department in Maryland to operate a medic unit, was also one of the first in Montgomery County to utilize 12-lead ECGs and the first in the county to equip all of its ambulances with automated external defibrillators. The Rescue Squad continues to obtain state-of-the-art medical equipment and training for its members, who have responded by consistently finishing at the top of their training classes.
CARRYING ON A LEGACY
It is the Rescue Squad’s heavy reliance on volunteers that has defined its history and its character. The obligations that the Squad places on its members are legendary and have no doubt contributed to the Squad’s status as one of the nation’s strongest volunteer EMS/Fire/Rescue departments. The fact that research scientists, accountants, lawyers, college and graduate school students, government officials, small business owners, school teachers, nurses, corporate executives, and others volunteer with the Rescue Squad is both a reflection of the community the Squad serves and a tribute to the Squad’s reputation for excellence.
Today, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad carries on the legacy left by Don Dunnington and his co-founders by providing emergency fire, rescue, and ambulance services to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area. The Rescue Squad’s fleet includes six ambulance/medic units, two heavy rescue squads, and various command and utility vehicles. The Squad’s 150 professionally-trained volunteers, a daytime staff, and one Montgomery County Paramedic responded nearly 20 calls for help every day. The Squad derives almost all of its operating funds from generous community donations and occasional state and federal grants.
Despite the growth in the population of its service area, the Rescue Squad has constantly improved its services to meet the challenges it encounters. In responding to nearly 7,000 emergency calls per year, the Squad’s dedicated volunteers and staff let nothing get in the way of “Answering the Call.”