Saving lives at work and off hours: David Vitberg


Flashing lights, ear-splitting sirens, fire trucks, rescue ambulances. For David Vitberg, then a yeshivah boy in Setauket, N.Y., it was a teenage kid’s dream.


At 16, he trained to be a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT). As a freshman at Brandeis University, he earned his EMT certification.

That became the gateway to a professional career in critical-care medicine. Along the way, he never lost his passion for volunteering as a first responder for his community.

At 46, Vitberg of Towson is division chief of medical and surgical critical-care medicine at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He received his advanced medical training at University of Maryland and the National Institutes of Health. When he is not working a 12-hour day, he pitches in at two volunteer fire companies in Lutherville and Chestnut Ridge. He does it as much for the camaraderie as for the thrill of “catching a call” to rescue someone in need.

“I don’t think there’s any better way to feel connected to your community than to join a local volunteer fire company that responds to your neighbors,” says Vitberg, who is also a trained volunteer firefighter and serves on the executive board member of the 113-year-old Lutherville Volunteer Fire Company. “It’s exciting; it’s fun. You get to learn this incredible skill set.”

He notes that in the past 20 years, more Jewish volunteers have joined the ranks. “My religious parents were not thrilled with me doing this because the fire service, for a long time, had this stigma as not being a Jewish thing, something we’d typically not get involved with.”

Among the plumbers, landscapers and electricians at the two volunteer fire companies are a commercial pilot, lawyers and investment advisors. “There’s a much broader spectrum of people, including women, from all different religions and walks of life,” says Vitberg.

Baltimore County and the nonprofit companies fund the volunteer training offered by local institutions of higher learning. The volunteer paramedics and firefighters receive a variety of certifications.

“You get all these merit badges that permit you to do increasingly more things when you get on a fire engine or a rescue squad,” says Vitberg. The skills, like vehicle extrication and confined space rescue, are not unlike those required by career EMTs and paramedic firefighters, he notes.

Lutherville and Chestnut Ridge each have about 80 volunteers, with core groups of 20 that regularly slide down the shiny brass pole when the emergency alarm goes off.

“It’s hard for me to drive straight home from work without first stopping by one of the fire stations, popping in and seeing what’s going on, what happened that day, what the calls were,” says Vitberg, who also volunteers as deputy medical director of the Baltimore County Fire Department.

“There’s a magnetism about this when you start getting into it. It really pulls you into being part of the life around the station,” he explains. “It’s just something that has really become ingrained in my DNA, my personality, the way I live my life.”

Vitberg will typically devote three to eight hours during a shift: “Maybe I’ll work out in the gym inside, kick back, watch some TV and actually relax in between catching a call.”

He says volunteering for the fire companies gives him a sense of purpose beyond what his job in medicine offers. “It really makes you value everything else that much more when you see all the bad things that can happen, how quickly people can become sick and how quickly things can change. That makes you appreciate the little things in life, a good meal, a good night’s sleep, your health, time with your family.”

Vitberg is married to Dori, 46, and they have three children: Liam, 6, Talia, 12, and Maya, 16. He believes that his volunteering teaches his children about “being involved and helping your neighbor when they are in their times of greatest need.” (Right now, the trucks are a must-see spectacle for his first-grader, Liam.)

Jewish values inform his voluntarism

The volunteer fire companies receive about half of their funding from county taxpayers. The rest comes from community fundraisers organized by the volunteers. They receive donations through drives, dinners, bingo and other activities.

Volunteer EMTs and firefighters are a rich tradition that communities cannot afford to lose, he stresses.

“People that live out in Baltimore County, particularly those that live close to communities that have volunteer stations, need to be aware of that and understand their critical importance,” says Vitberg, “especially with the struggles of getting volunteers these days and getting financial support for these volunteer companies.”

He makes it a point to say that his Jewish values inform his volunteer service.

“He who saves one life saves the world,” he says, quoting the Talmud. “If you devote yourself to serving your community, you’ve done good in this world. I applaud all the people around me that do this as far as their relationship to Judaism. These are good people who are making a sacrifice of working another day, making more money, to just be a mensh and serve others.”

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