Vintage 1972 Cadillac ambulance highlights B-CC’s Rescue Day

Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Mechanic and B-CC Rescue Squad member Tony Veith helped restore the squad’svintage 1972 Cadillac ambulance to its former splendor.

In 1972, the original ‘‘Godfather” movie opened in theaters, the TV show M*A*S*H premiered and the last Cadillac ambulance to serve the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad was purchased. But unlike those other classics, this year, the Caddy got an update.

After a yearlong restoration, Rescue 15, the squad’s vintage 1972 Cadillac ambulance, will make its public debut at the squad’s annual open house, Rescue Day, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 7 at the station at 5020 Battery Lane.

‘‘It’s like a symbol of the squad’s old times,” said Donald FitzGerald, president of the Alumni Association of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. ‘‘The youngsters get a kick out of it because they never knew anything like it existed and the older folks like it because they say, ‘Oh I remember that.’”

With its tail fins and high, round roof, the vehicle sort of resembles an old-fashioned hearse, said Johnie Roth, assistant chief at the squad.

In the 1960s and ‘70s the squad had an entire fleet of Cadillac ambulances. The vehicles, which were built on a Cadillac chassis, were state-of-the-art at the time.

The restoration, which basically rebuilt Rescue 15 from the frame, cost $65,000 and was paid for by the alumni association. The funds came from member contributions, dues and other fundraisers, FitzGerald said.

‘‘It looks beautiful,” Roth said. ‘‘Over a period of time from weather and all the chemicals they put on the road, it comes down with rust. It’s almost been rebuilt from the ground up.”

The alumni association formed in 1978 with the mission to preserve the squad’s history, support its operations and to keep connections among squad members.

Rescue 15 was the perfect project for the group to rally around, said FitzGerald who has been involved with the squad in some capacity for more than 55 years.

‘‘The ambulance is like a bonding unit,” he said. ‘‘This ambulance became a bridge between current members and the alumni.”

Rescue 15 was the last Cadillac ambulance to be in service in the squad’s fleet. The squad bought it new in 1972 and it served until 1975, which was a pretty typical run, said B-CC Rescue Squad President David Chaconas. It responded to approximately 4,600 emergency incidents while it was in service. Today’s rescue vehicles are replaced every five to six years and respond to about 5,000 calls, he said.

‘‘We used to purchase five at a time and replace the whole fleet at once,” said Roth who has served with the squad for 39 years. Ambulances ‘‘used to cost $40,000 or $45,000. Now they’re $150,000, almost $200,000.”

Rescue 15 still has its original medical equipment, including a stretcher, oxygen resuscitator and first aid equipment. The emergency lights still operate just like they did 34 years ago.

By 1974, the squad began to use more spacious box-type ambulances, built on pickup truck chassis for better patient care.

‘‘The biggest difference is probably the space, for an EMT or a medic to work on a patient,” Roth said. ‘‘Now you can get at least two patients in the back, one in the cot and we also have a bench. Plus, now we’re carrying a lot more equipment.”

After 1975, Rescue 15 served as a reserve ambulance and since 1985, it has served in a ceremonial function at open houses, parades and funeral processions.

‘‘When you look at this thing, get in it, feel the ride, it’s a huge technological difference than what we run today,” Chaconas said.

Today, the squad’s fleet includes four medic units, three ambulances, two heavy rescue squads, an air support unit and rescue air compressor trailer, a medic ‘‘chase” car and various command and utility vehicles.

The squad was founded in 1937. It responds to all types of emergencies in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Glen Echo, Potomac, Cabin John, Kensington, Rockville and Northwest Washington, D.C., and serves more than 94,000 households.

In addition to showing off Rescue 15’s fresh looks, Rescue Day will also have fire and safety prevention advice, children’s activities, station tours and demonstrations of equipment.

Squad members, past and present, will be proud to show off the old as well as the new.

‘‘We’re preserving history,” Chaconas said. ‘‘The rescue squad has been around since 1937 and it was pretty much started with Cadillac ambulances.”