Six years ago, the Verona Rescue Squad was failing to respond to some 300 calls a year. The all-volunteer squad didn’t have enough members during the day time to meet the demand for its services. Then Frederick “Ricky” Tempesta became chief–and rescued the Rescue Squad.
In 2020, the Rescue Squad missed just 12 calls, fewer than 1% of its calls in a year strained by the worst public health crisis in more than a century. While other squads in New Jersey have had to close for lack of volunteers, the Verona Rescue Squad has added 135 members and increased the training of all. The VRS has come to be seen as a model for volunteer squads in New Jersey and a leader in its handling of calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. On New Year’s Day, Tempesta handed off a revitalized squad and the title of chief to new leadership.
“Ricky set the example for other squads to follow to protect their community,” says Jeff Shilling, who preceded Tempesta as chief.
Ricky Tempesta was, perhaps, born to lead the VRS: Both his parents had served as first responders in Verona. His father, Frederick D. Tempesta, had also been chief and believed that the top job was to get the VRS’ calls answered–or answer them himself. And in the beginning, that is exactly what Ricky Tempesta did. A nursing school graduate, he worked as a paramedic by night so that he could answer calls in Verona by day. He answered hundreds.
Tempesta, who is 32, also began to do things that his father hadn’t. The VRS had a policy that only people who lived in Verona could be members. To get the daytime calls answered, Ricky Tempesta asked the VRS to let out-of-towners join, and he attracted new members from the Caldwells, East Orange, Livingston, Montclair, Newark and West Orange. One of them was Mark Steinberg.
“Ricky fought for me and it changed my life,” says Steinberg. He’s now a certified emergency medical technician, and a resident of Verona, one of four former VRS out-of-towners to move in. “When every other organization shut its doors to members, Ricky opened them.”
Tempesta took a fresh approach to scheduling. In the past, VRS volunteers could choose only a 12-hour shift, all day or all night. Tempesta allowed them to give whatever hours they could, even if it wasn’t a full shift, and put the schedule online. “If I see they are short, I can put myself in for a shift,” says Michael Schumell, a 21-year veteran of the VRS. The computerized schedule also means that Verona’s 911 dispatchers know the VRS can respond to every call without them having to use the emergency horn to call for help.
Tempesta also expanded the VRS’ ranks of youth members, even though that meant investing training into young people who might not all stay in town or on the squad. Many do, and others improve healthcare elsewhere by going on to be EMTs, paramedics and nurses. Tempesta used his abundant people skills to manage the current high schoolers, the members he went to Verona High School with, and the squad veterans who had served with his parents. “He earned the respect of all these generations,” says Schumell.
It wasn’t always easy, says Shilling. “He was being held up to his father’s standards, and it was hard being the son of Fred Tempesta. But through that all he became his own person.” The elder Tempesta passed away in 2012.
“Over the years, I have learned countless things from Ricky,” says Cassie Jung, an 11-year squad member who now serves as president. “This includes successfully maintaining an organization, under the worst of circumstances. I learned how important it is to work with members to meet a common goal. Not all members can offer a 12 shift every week, but working with those members are instrumental in getting our calls answered. Ricky and I have become proficient in working together as a team on a united front. We may not always agree with each other, but are able to work the problem in order to have the best organization possible.”
Since COVID-19 hit Verona last March, Tempesta has implemented protocols to protect his volunteers, putting a senior member on every shift and telling those who were older or who had underlying health issues that they did not need to ride. But while other towns, like Cedar Grove, had to close volunteer squads and switch to paid responders, Verona’s volunteers kept serving. “By building the membership and not having to go paid during the day, Ricky is saving us a lot,” says Shilling.
For all that Tempesta has done, there remain tasks for his apprentice and successor, Greg Petroski, a VHS alumni. Chief among them is the VRS’ aging building on Church Street. In 2017, the squad lost a chance at better digs when a petition drive scuttled the Town Council’s plan to buy the former Congregation Beth Ahm and remodel it for the VRS. COVID-19 sharply increased the VRS’ operating costs, and the squad must press ahead with fundraising despite the bad economy.
There will be no VRS banquet this January to formally install the new leadership or recognize the accomplishment of members–COVID protocols make that impossible. But there will be celebrations all around. “The best manager is the person who prepares somebody to replace him,” says Tempesta’s mother Rosemary. “My husband would be so proud of him.”