Fred Ackerly already was helming a volunteer ambulance crew on an overnight shift and alternating weekends when COVID-19 roared into New York City, an hour outside his New Jersey hometown.
He pitched in as much as he could on other EMT shifts as the crisis exploded, on top of his day job as a Verizon network technician who maintains switching and transport equipment at a central office in Hackensack, N.J.
Ackerly, who is also an alternate shop steward for statewide Local 827, based in East Windsor, N.J., was stretched thin. But he was eager to do all he could for volunteer Wanaque First Aid Squad, where he’d been an emergency medical technician since graduating as valedictorian of a night school course in August 2019.
He could hardly believe his eyes when he got a text from local business agent Tom Kelly telling him about a newly negotiated benefit at Verizon: eight weeks’ paid leave to allow medically trained and certified members to serve their communities at the height of the crisis.
“I thought, ‘This would be fantastic!’ I knew if I could take this leave it would be a huge help for my squad,” Ackerly said. “They’ve got their day jobs, too. It’s been a struggle for all of us.”
Immediately, he hopped on the company’s COVID-19 resource page but found nothing posted. He fired off an email to the head of human resources, who assured him the details were coming.
Within a whirlwind couple of days, he was approved for leave beginning mid-April. “I was ecstatic,” he said.
So was his squad supervisor, Captain Patricia Norton.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted,” said Norton, who wrote a letter in support of Ackerly’s leave. “I said, ‘corporate America just does not do these things.’
Norton said the squad was short-staffed and Ackerly, in addition to assigned shifts, filled in whenever needed. “Being in charge, it was comforting to know that he was there. He’s just that kind of guy you know you can rely on,” she said.
“Kudos to Verizon and his union for coming up with a plan like this. It was invaluable to us.”
Local 827 Business Manager Bob Speer was one of the IBEW leaders who helped strike the deal, covering Verizon workers in the Northeast. He said Ackerly could have played it safe but chose to serve.
“He stepped up, he’s a vet and he went to the front lines,” Speer said. “He took the virus on, faced it down and helped people. He’s a hero. I’m very proud to say that he’s a member of Local 827.”
Safety in the COVID-19 era demands that medics don more personal protective equipment than normal. As the virus surged, Ackerly often was covered head-to-toe — gloves, N95 masks, booties, goggles, head coverings, and gowns that that made him sweat.
“At one point the protocols were changing almost daily,” he said, noting that his EMT squad, like doctors and nurses had to stretch out PPE intended to be used once and thrown away.
To minimize risk, the squad asks patients who are mobile to meet them outside their homes so that medics don’t have to go in.
While the rate of infections has plummeted in New York and New Jersey, the EMTs aren’t letting their guard down. That includes masking all patients, a requirement that is unlikely to change in the near future.
“We can’t bring anybody into a hospital without a mask on, even if it’s just a cut on the arm” Ackerly said.
A call in the early weeks of the crisis reminds him never to get complacent about safety.
“One lady, she was in a car accident that required extraction. We were in the rig. I had a mask on her, she’s bleeding, I’m trying to contain it,” Ackerly said, “Halfway to the hospital she tells me, ‘My mother tested positive for the coronavirus.”
Ackerly jumped at the opportunity to join the Wanaque squad after visiting its booth at a town picnic in 2018. As a former Marine and Boy Scout leader for both his sons’ troops, he’d always been a big proponent of learning first aid.
“I was sold,” he said. “A lot of people want to be volunteer firemen, which is great. I wanted to do this.”
Exceling as a trainee, he advanced quickly from rookie to crew leader. His team normally works overnight Wednesdays and every other weekend.
“He was quite the shining star when he decided to join the ranks,” Norton said. “He’s a pleasure and a joy and we are very lucky to have him.”
Ackerly feels lucky, too.
“This opportunity has me speechless,” he said in a video that Verizon produced. “My company is paying me to be a fulltime EMT for my organization. Words can’t describe that.”
Similar to reports from medics across the country, Ackerly said the number of nuisance calls dropped dramatically when the virus struck — people who summon ambulances for minor ailments or sometimes no medical reason at all. More worryingly, calls for potential heart attacks, injuries and other real emergencies dropped, too.
“For a while people were afraid to go to the hospital, even when they really should, but now we’re starting to get a little bit more of that,” he said in June.
Being there for people in those dark moments, when they’re in pain, bleeding, having difficulty breathing, is what he signed up to do.
“They’re calling you at a bad time with a serious medical issue, or they’re hurt and they’re scared, especially now,” he said. “We had one woman with cancer who called us. She told us she was lonely. I wanted to hug her, but I couldn’t. I felt so badly for her.”
A high point of being able to volunteer during the day was the monthly parade of emergency vehicles to celebrate children’s birthdays and occasions such as Mother’s Day, a procession of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances to take some of the sting out of canceled parties and visits.
“They’ll stand in the front yard and wave to us, some of them holding up signs,” Ackerly said. “It’s a special day for all of us.”
His exuberance for his EMT duties suggests every day on the ambulance is special.
“The more help I can be,” he said, “the happier I am.”