By Philip Sean Curran
Construction of a new headquarters for the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad will begin this month in time for the building on Mount Lucas Road, Princeton, to open toward the end of November 2019, squad officials said.
“I can’t believe the day is here,” squad Chief Frank Setnicky said on Nov. 30 after he and others attended a groundbreaking ceremony at the site where the building will be constructed. “I think everybody’s still pinching themselves that it’s real.”
The first aid squad will move from North Harrison Street, out of the building it has called home since 1963, to a central location near the police and fire departments. The 15,400-square-foot headquarters will cost $7.8 million to construct, squad President Mark Freda said after the ceremony.
The organization has said it is more than 75 percent toward its fundraising goal of $12 million, money that also will enable the squad to have an endowment.
The new building will be named in honor of the late Helen Chooljian, a Princeton resident who was active in the community. She died last year at 84. Her family donated to the fundraising campaign, and her widower, Martin, and her long-time aide, Brenda Stewart, attended the ceremony.
Freda used a shovel that he said was used in the groundbreaking ceremony for the first headquarters.
Earlier, Freda told the crowd how, 15 years ago, “the squad decided it was time to do something about our too small, too tight, too old building … ”
He shared how today, the squad cannot fit all of its emergency vehicles in the current Harrison Street headquarters, such that it has temporary awnings with vehicles under them.
During his remarks, Freda shared some of the history of the first aid squad, which was founded in 1939. He recalled that when the squad obtained its first ambulance, “the two local funeral directors were then able to stop their quote unquote ambulance services.”
“I imagine it wasn’t all that reassuring if you needed to go to the hospital to have the local funeral director show up and put you in the back of a hearse,” he said in a remark that got a laugh.
Today, the first aid squad, which is made up of about 100 volunteers and 13 paid staff members, responds to about 3,000 calls a year.
Freda also recalled Michael Kenwood, the squad member who died in August 2011 as a result of injuries he sustained during a water rescue call during tropical storm Irene.
Kenwood’s father, Martin, mother, Sheila Lobel, and widow, Elizabeth Frenkel, attended the ceremony.
Frenkel said afterward that her late husband was “strongly in support of the squad getting a new building and he would be thrilled to see this dream coming true.”
Martha Sword, who led the fundraising committee for the project, shared how the squad touched her life twice. The first time came in 2003 when her husband, Bill, was attacked and stabbed 12 times during a home invasion at their Princeton residence.
“Amid complete chaos and panic in our home, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad brought us under control, assessed Bill’s injuries, staunched his bleeding and arranged to airlift him to a trauma center in Trenton,” she said. “Simply put, they saved his life.”
Nine years later, squad members were back at the Sword home, this time during superstorm Sandy. Sword, 61, was killed when a tree in the driveway fell on him.
“Even on that horrific night, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad miraculously showed up in our driveway,” she said, her voice filling with emotion. “Though they couldn’t save him, I would like to publicly thank them and the police for risking life and limb on our family’s behalf that night.”
Princeton will eventually acquire the first aid squad’s North Harrison Street property, although Mayor Liz Lempert said officials have not decided what they will do with the site.