The People’s EMS on a roll again

Instructor Frank Ballu teaching an E M T class.
Photo by Lem Peterkin
Photo by Lem Peterkin

The new EMT Training Academy of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BSVAC) is now in full operation, and busy training heroes in Brooklyn.

The nation’s only ethnically inclusive volunteer ambulance corps, popularly known as the People’s EMS, offers the 140-hour EMT training course, which can cost upwards of a thousand dollars elsewhere, free of charge to members of the community who sign up to become volunteers. A new evening course is being added to BSVAC’s schedule of daytime courses and new applications are now being taken.

Completion of EMT training is a ticket to success, enabling young adults to secure employment in the emergency medical care system.

BSVAC is an internationally recognized life-saving organization, that has responded to emergencies throughout the U.S. (including the first World Trade Center bombing, the Queens air disaster, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina) and abroad; it was the first organization to send volunteer medical personnel to Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake and is currently working with the Haitain government to develop plans for an EMS system in Haiti.

BSVAC’s grassroots education effort has been a central part of the BSVAC mission from its start in 1988. Co-founder Rocky Robinson said, “When we started it was just me and my partner, Joe Perez. We didn’t even have an ambulance. We’d strap the oxygen tanks on our backs, trauma kits in our hands and we’d run down the street. Everyone in the neighborhood was laughing — except the patient.”

In the early days, BSVAC’s Robinson and Perez didn’t have a building or any financial help. So they improvised. They moved into an abandoned building that was used to sell crack and set up shop. They recruited volunteers, taking what the neighborhood had to offer: a ragtag group of recovering alcoholics, prostitutes, and drug addicts. They trained the volunteers in First Aid, CPR and basic EMT skills. With the assistance of volunteer lawyer Tamsin Wolf, who has served as vice president since 1989, they became incorporated, secured tax-exemption and began developing their formal training programs.

“I saw how this changed their lives,” Robinson explains. “It gave them hope and a second chance. It got them off the streets and gave them a career. That’s still our goal today. Give members of the Bed- Stuy community a chance to improve their lives and make a difference.” As vice president Wolf explains, “We grow heroes.” She is thrilled to be a recent graduate of the Training Academy herself, having waited over 20 years for the opportunity.

For the last 22 years, BSVAC has fought a battle every month to keep the doors open and the ambulances rolling. Along the way, Robinson and Wolf have never given up on their belief that grassroots education is one of the best ways to create positive change. BSVAC has set up courses in the basements of churches, senior centers, boys and girls clubs, wherever they could find space. BSVAC’s students who go through EMT training have a remarkably high passing rate for the New York State EMT certification examination.

BSVAC’s new EMT Training Academy, made possible by a City grant through Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, is dedicated to the memory of EMT Deborah Crawford, a long-time BSVAC volunteer and local hero who single-handedly saved and changed countless lives.

For more information on BSVAC visit

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