Vi Watson has been with Trumbull EMS since before there was a Trumbull EMS. As one of the original 20 volunteers who signed up in 1976, Watson has literally been there since the very beginning.

“I was a housewife, and the town wanted to start a program, and it seemed like something to do instead of going back to school,” Watson said. “I had no background or anything. I thought I would take a shot and see if I could pass the state test.”

Now, 40 years later, Watson and the rest of Trumbull EMS are gearing up for the service’s 40th anniversary dinner, scheduled for Jan. 14 at Vazzano’s Four Seasons in Stratford. EMS Chief Joseph Laucella said he would be happy to see former volunteers and people from the community at the event.

“Throughout the years we have a lot of friends that are former EMTs, dispatchers, drivers,” he said. “EMS is still a very young industry compared to firefighting or police work. It means a lot for a department to have made it 40 years.”

Tickets for the Jan. 14 dinner are $50 and include dinner and dancing. There also will be an awards and recognition ceremony. For tickets, email Jlaucella@trumbull-ct.gov.

Emergency medical service was in its infancy when Trumbull began training its first crop of 20 volunteer EMTs, Watson said. Before then, if someone called an ambulance, it would arrive driven by a police officer who likely had little to no training.

“It was a hook-and-haul operation back then,” Watson said. “The ambulance would show up, they would throw you in the back and run you to the hospital. Now, with the training and equipment that ambulances have, we can get patients stabilized on-scene, sometimes right in their driveway. It’s like getting emergency room-level care on the move.”

Much as they do today, traffic accidents made up a good portion of the emergency calls in the 1970s. Back then, seat belts had just recently become standard equipment, and most people didn’t use them. Car seats were rare, and car interiors, with metal dashboards and steering wheels and vertical glass windshields, routinely caused serious injury.

On the other hand, Trumbull had more country roads and fewer state highways, which kept speeds down.

“Also we didn’t have cell phones and other distractions,” Watson said.

Other than cars, the other big change in town over the past 40 years has been the medical awareness of regular citizens. Watson credits that to former First Selectman Paul Timpanelli, a former volunteer.

“He wanted everyone in town to know CPR,” Watson said. “He was on a call with me, and he couldn’t understand why the family wasn’t helping the patient. I told him they didn’t know how, and his response was, ‘We gotta change that.’”

Over the next several months, Watson, Timpanelli and a handful of other volunteers trained more than 5,000 residents in life-saving CPR, she said.

“We held classes for 100 people at a time, sometimes three or four nights a week,” she said.

The most rewarding aspect of EMS work has been watching the new members take the EMT class, then become interested in the work and make it their career, she said.

“I’ve watched young volunteers become doctors,” she said. “They start and don’t know what they want to do then, and then you see them and they’ve taken up medicine. That’s very rewarding.”

Some have also become professional EMTs and paramedics in town, as paid staff have begun taking on more responsibilities. Currently about 70 volunteers work side by side with professionals.

“Fewer women were working back then, so if their kids were in school they could take a shift during the day,” Watson said. In fact, she herself is one of those women, as the former housewife now works as a real estate agent, though she still takes a regular turn volunteering.

“The stretchers raise and lower themselves now, so I don’t lift patients as much anymore,” she said. “But I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”