Julian Stanley Wise (1900 – July 22, 1985), was the founder of the Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew, the first volunteer rescue squad in the United States. In 1909, Wise was walking along the banks of the Roanoke River in Roanoke, Virginia, when he witnessed two men capsize a canoe in deep, rough water. Though many onlookers saw the accident, none of them had the equipment or training to offer much in the way of help, and both men drowned. Wise later said of the incident, "I vowed that never again would I watch a man die when he could have been saved if only those around him knew how." That incident stayed with Wise and on May 28, 1928, Wise and nine coworkers at the Norfolk and Western Railway began the first volunteer rescue squad. Wise proved the worth of the squad by staging a mock rescue in 1929, sinking a 250-pound dummy in a pond and calling the rescue squad.
The city of Roanoke, impressed by the demonstration, agreed to provide communication support. A local funeral home donated an ambulance, and Wise's vision became a reality. By 1966, when the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed in the United States, thousands of rescue squads had sprung up throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world. Training standards for Emergency Medical Technicians were enacted with the passage of the Highway Safety Act.The rescue squad idea was not entirely new when Julian Wise’s crew responded to its first call in 1928. Wise’s innovation was to combine rescue, first aid, and lifesaving into one independent agency. The nine members of the original crew all worked with Wise at the railroad. Citizens were invited to call in alarms to a phone that rang on the desk of the chief clerk, Harry Avis. Avis sent word to his fellow crew members, who rushed to the scene of the emergency. They received only six calls during the first year of operation, and in most cases the crew arrived too late to do any good. “At that time, we could keep all our equipment in my Reo,” Wise said. The squad’s first-aid kit was a three-dollar fishing tackle box, stocked with supplies that included poison ivy wash, tannic acid compound, ammonia inhalant, and tincture of Merthiolate. In 1931, Wise and his men were called out for a drowning. They reached the scene in eleven minutes and effectively revived a sixteen year-old boy. The feat attracted national publicity.
Interest in the volunteer rescue movement began to grow. Wise, a tireless promoter of his cause, traveled to cities in Virginia, the Carolinas, and elsewhere to help start squads, many of which copied the structure and philosophy of his crew. As rescue squads began to pop up throughout the commonwealth, there were some limits on transporting patients. When a patient was picked up to be taken to the hospital, first responders could only be taken to the county line. Julian Wise realized that stopping to transfer patients from one vehicle to another was costing the patient valuable time. There had to be a better more efficient way for agencies to get help to patients. As the number of rescue squads and fire departments grew, it was becoming more and more apparent that not everyone was operating as efficiently as possible. There were different levels of training and communication was limited. Julian Stanley Wise realized there needed to be a central place for all rescue squads to commiserate, train, communicate and grow. On the night of February 12, 1935, a meeting was called at the Hotel Roanoke by Captain Julian S. Wise of the Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew. Invitations to attend had been issued to all First Aid Crews and Rescue Squads of the state for the purpose of forming an association. The meeting was well attended by interested citizens from all parts of the state as well as Viscose Life Saving and First Aid Crew, Covington Life Saving and First Aid Crew, Salem Life Saving and First Aid Crew, Lynchburg Life Saving and First Aid Crew and V.P.I. Life Saving Crew. Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads held its first convention on September 28, 1935, in Lynchburg and Julian Wise was elected the first president. At the Convention in September, 1963, the Board of Governors resolved that all applications for membership in the Virginia Association of Rescue Squads be a volunteer organization and that no charges be made for their services. The association was so serious about this resolution that in 1969 the Board of Governors voted to expel Alexandria Rescue Squad due to the squad having paid members. In May of 1975, the name Virginia Association of Rescue Squads was officially changed to Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads. As volunteer agencies popped up all throughout the Commonwealth the membership of the VAVRS began to grow exponentially.
Today, the association is home to volunteer and paid fire and rescue, county and municipality EMS agencies, hospitals, universities, corporations and medical transport companies. The organization started with just six units and now is made up of hundreds of units throughout the Commonwealth representing approximately 20,000 individual members. On Saturday, May 30, 1998, the VAVRS State Office Headquarters was dedicated on 2.6 acres of land purchased in 1996 for $61,154 in Oilville Virginia. The $600,000 headquarters is a 6400 square foot two story brick building, which features offices, conference rooms and a grand lobby on the main floor. The lower level has a training room, large kitchen, storage area and a 2 bay garage.
The VAVRS has advocated for emergency medical services departments in state government and supported passage of legislation to gain funding for an office and executive director position in 1976, established the Rescue Squad Assistance Fund in 1978, and instituted the $1.00 for Life program to support regional councils in 1983. This funding has increased substantially to $2.00 in 1990 and $4.00 in 2002. The rescue squad movement spread quickly throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation. Multiple states including Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina have used the VAVRS model to set up their agencies. Members of the association have their own "claims to fame." In 1970, Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad started the nation's first volunteer paramedic program under Dr. Richard Crampton. One of their first patients was President Lyndon Johnson, who suffered a heart attack while visiting his son-in-law Chuck Robb. Hunton Life Saving Crew was organized on December 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack of Pearl Harbor. It was the only life saving crew with an all black membership in the world at the time of its inception.
"This was like all other fine adventures,” Julian Wise said looking back on his life in volunteer rescue. “All we need to do is reach out and there are people to respond." Wise died on a July afternoon in 1985, not unlike the one during which he’d watched two men drown seventy six years earlier. In one of those dreamy coincidences, five hours after he took his last breath, a call came into Roanoke’s 911 system about a thirteen-year-old boy who’d gone down in the river. Volunteers rushed to the scene, found the boy unconscious, and in minutes had him breathing again. That, as every volunteer will tell you, is what it’s all about.
"Diamond Reflections" a book regarding the first 75 years of the Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads is now available from the VAVRS Office by calling the VAVRS Office at 800-833-0602 - The more than 250 page hardback book has chapters about our history, our Past Presidents, Life Members, Hall of Fame members, VAVRS/AVAVRS/VAJVRS officers, State Conventions, Rescue College, and much more. For only $30.00 plus $5.00 shipping, you can own your own copy of this beautiful documentation of 75 years of the VAVRS.
Below are links to PDF files of each chapter of Diamond Reflections
Brief Chronological History of the VAVRS
Past Presidents of the VAVRS
Life Members and Hall of Fame Members
Life Members 2021 Edition
VAVRS Officers by year
Alphabetical Listings of Officers
VAVRS Life Member Photos
Virginia Life Saving and Rescue Hall of Fame
AVAVRS Past President Biographies
Order your personal copy today by contacting the State Office at (804)-749-8191 or by email.