After 15 years of planning and fundraising, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) broke ground Friday, November 30, for its new headquarters on a site bordered by Valley Road, Witherspoon Street, Route 206, and Cherry Hill Road. The land was formerly home to the Princeton Township Public Works facility.
?Today marks the bridge between our past and our future,? said Mark Freda, president of the 78-year-old nonprofit that long ago outgrew its headquarters on Harrison Street. Addressing a crowd of community members, elected officials, and PFARS volunteers past and present, Freda recalled the decision ?to solve the problem of our too small, too tight, too old building.?
Built in 1963, the current headquarters is ?a building in which there is but one inch of clearance on each side of our modern ambulances as you back them into the building,? Freda said. PFARS? new home, which was designed by architects Dennis Ross, David Pacheco, and Katrina Pacheco and lists C. Raymond Davis as general contractor, will have bays for 10 emergency vehicles, room for training, storage, decontamination, sleeping quarters, and educational needs.
The new facility will be named after the late Helen Chooljian, a longtime Princeton resident and supporter of the squad whose family donated funds in her memory. Edward Matthews, who headed the fundraising campaign, said 75 percent of the $12 million determined to be necessary for the new building and a small endowment fund has been raised. Matthews offered special thanks to Betty Wold Johnson, who was among the guests, for her support of the squad.
PFARS is not a municipal agency, though it works hand-in-hand with the Princeton Police and Fire Departments. Its annual budget is raised through volunteer EMT services, insurance reimbursement, and individual contributions.
As part of the move from North Harrison Street, PFARS formed a partnership with Princeton in 2014 in which the town agreed to purchase the existing building plus two Cape Cod-style houses just behind it that were owned by the squad. While the town currently has control over the two homes, PFARS will continue to administer the existing facility until the squad moves into the new building. The town has made no decisions about what will be done with the buildings, Mayor Liz Lempert said on Monday.
When the existing PFARS facility was built 55 years ago, the squad had two Cadillac ambulances and a small rescue truck. Today, PFARS has four ambulances, a large rescue truck, other vehicles, and water rescue equipment. In 1941, Freda said, the squad had answered 85 calls by November. Today, PFARS responds to nearly 3,000 calls a year.
The squad has volunteer and career members. ?PFARS is most likely the only EMS??organization in the area to combine volunteer and career staff in a model where both are seen as and treated the same,? Freda said. ?Many other agencies have tried and failed at this model. I?m sad to say that a number of independent, nonprofit first aid squads in surrounding towns no longer exist, having been replaced by outsourced or fully paid services.?
Martha Sword, who with Matthews has been instrumental in raising funds for the new building, praised PFARS for saving her husband?s life once, when an intruder stabbed him repeatedly at the family?s Princeton home; and making a valiant effort to save him during Hurricane Sandy when a tree fell on him in the driveway. William Sword died from his injuries on October 29, 2012.
?Though they couldn?t save him then, I would like to publicly thank them and the police for risking life and limb on our family?s behalf,? Sword said. ?It?s because of their dedication to duty that I willingly agreed to be part of a campaign for a new PFARS headquarters. What a privilege it is to give back to the squad and to honor Bill?s memory with this work.?
PFARS hopes to move into the new building by December 2019.