WESTPORT — When Russell Blair began working as a volunteer firefighter in Westport in the early 1950s, there were no emergency medical services. As a result, firefighters tried to help people involved in accidents with what limited first aid equipment they had on their engines.

“I was responding to accidents, and we really were not equipped or trained for patients,” he said.

Blair went on to take one of the first emergency medical technician courses at Norwalk Hospital. In 1979, he helped found the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services to supplement the town’s paid emergency medical service, as well as help provide more focused care and better training for EMTs. WVEMS operates with the help of grants, donations and fees from CPR training courses it offers. It takes about $250,000 a year to operate the service, even with the 18,000 volunteer hours contributed annually.

“One struggle I had was raising enough money to buy what we need,” said Blair, now a member of the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Service board of directors.

So when Newman’s Own Foundation awarded a $35,000 grant to WVEMS, it was a huge relief for the organization, which often relies on such funds to

purchase new equipment that falls outside its operating budget. Blair said when he first began WVEMS, an ambulance cost $50,000, plus an extra $50,000 for equipment. The price of that has now almost doubled, leading an equipped ambulance to cost the organization a full year’s worth of operating expenses.

“Most of that is spent on expendable things,” said Larry Kleinman, treasurer of WVEMS and an EMT with the service for four years. “The cost of everything has gone up significantly over the years, which is why the grant is a big deal. The big-ticket items are getting bigger.”

And with new technology for devices like heart monitors coming out around every three years, it can be difficult to keep all equipment up-to-date.

“The technology has changed over the years,” said Yves Cantin, president and 11-year member of WVEMS. “Even basic equipment, like stretchers, cost $13,000 apiece. The way we finance is we save money and then make a big acquisition that new technology and practices require. Receiving grants like this is fantastic. It helps us to move forward.”

WVEMS has previously been awarded grants from Newman’s Own Foundation, but none so large as this one. WVEMS was one of the original recipients of the organization’s grants, which go toward philanthropic nonprofits.

The use of this year’s grant has not yet been decided. However, Cantin said they were considering using it to purchase a mechanical CPR device which does CPR in an ambulance so an EMT does not have to perform the method while standing up in the back of a moving vehicle.

“We’re in the business of providing the people of Westport with the best quality prehospital care we can,” said Martin Iselin, a 14-year WVEMS member and volunteer crew chief.

“You can still do quality care without it,” sai Marc Hartog, deputy director. “But it improves safety for personnel.”

Newman’s Own Foundation is awarding $35,000 to 15 of the nonprofit organizations that were originally funded and have been supported for over three decades. Since 1982, more than $495 million has been donated to thousands of charities around the world.

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata