Bluff City, TN

Rescue Squad in Need of Rescuers

John M. Dabbs

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Bluff City Rescue Squad/Facebook

Volunteers emergency personnel are getting harder to come by. The Bluff City Rescue Squad almost dropped off the endangered list and onto the list of defunct squads a few years ago. Thankfully, lifetime members and community leaders were summoned and help breathe new life into the organization. It's not just the Bluff City Squad, all volunteer fire and rescue agencies are seeing fewer and fewer people interested in joining the ranks. The situation is even more dire for the paid EMS providers.

Rescue 9-1-1

It wasn't too long ago that former Bluff City Junior Rescue Squad member, and now EMS Chief at Sullivan County EMS was on a prime-time network show. Rescue 9-1-1 highlighted emergency calls across the country where paid and volunteer rescuers came to the aid of the sick and injured. Chief Jim Perry, and his partner, Paramedic Stacy Mahan (now a Deputy Chief at Sullivan County EMS), responded to a call where a child had been run over by a school bus.

Such episodes helped bolster the interest in emergency services work. Many were drawn to the profession when EMERGENCY! hit the TV screens in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The program centered around the new paramedic program and its origin at the Los Angeles County Fire Department. It wasn't the only game in town. Seattle Fire Department, San Francisco Health Department, Miami Fire Department, and others were piloting the paramedic program across the country.

We've seen similar shows develop, such as Third Watch, and Trauma Center, that didn't necessarily cast the best light on EMS, but was a representation of the industry. EMERGENCY! did for EMS, what ADAM-12 did for law enforcement. It put the seed in the head of those who wanted to serve.

Society changed

Society and our lives in general, have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Volunteers have almost become extinct in and of themselves. Volunteer firemen are still appreciated, but their numbers have fallen too. The same for volunteer EMS and rescue agencies.

The Bluff City Rescue Squad was once the primary provider of emergency medical services (ambulance and rescue services) in the Bluff City, Piney Flats, and Hickory Tree areas of Sullivan County. At its pinnacle, the rescue squad operated a crash truck, water rescue truck, convalescent transport unit, and three ambulances at the extended life support level (not paramedics, but IV therapy and minimal drugs and defibrillation with automatic defibrillators).

The Bluff City Rescue Squad was one of the pilot agencies in Tennessee for allowing EMTs (emergency medical technicians) to defibrillate patients with automated devices. This was a big step in the days before the public was allowed to use the devices with CPR training. The squad was also well known as being one of the premier mountain rescue teams in the region... but times change.

Sullivan County EMS began taking up the slack and became the primary provider in the late 1980s when the Bluff City squad could no longer staff ambulances sufficiently during the day. The agency continued to provide ambulance service at standbys for football games, and supplemented the county's ambulance response capability for a few years until they could not keep up with state licensing requirements.

Today the organization operates two rescue "crash" trucks, and is mainly staffed with a paid rescue technician 24 hours daily, who is employed by the Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency. These rescue techs are well trained and licensed at minimum as EMTs.

Where have they gone

Many ask, Where have all of the volunteers gone? That's a good question. The volunteers who loved the work eventually moved into paid positions where they could provide emergency medical and rescue services for a living. Many went to work for Sullivan County EMS, Bristol Tennessee Fire Department, Kingsport Fire Department, and similar agencies.

A good portion of the leadership and veteran providers at the paid agencies came from the volunteer ranks. Sullivan County's EMS Chief, and operations director both came from Bluff City Rescue Squad. Their Deputy Chiefs came from volunteer agencies in Kingsport and Hawkins County. Bristol Tennessee Fire Chief, Mike Carrier, was a member of the Sullivan County Rescue Squad, and worked part-time at Sullivan County EMS and was hired full time before offered a position at the Bristol Fire Department.

Many of the veterans are also dying off. Bluff City squad veteran Phil Brown died a few years ago at the time of his retirement from Sullivan County EMS. Sabrina Carrier died in an automobile accident on her way to work at Sullivan County EMS, Lifetime member and Sullivan County EMA supervisor Steve Perry died recently due to COVID-19, Jeff Leonard of Bluff City and Sullivan County EMS died due to complications from a medical procedure, and last month, we lost Fred McGrew, a lifetime Bluff City Rescue Squad member, and longtime Sullivan County EMS paramedic.

Recently, Sullivan County chose to honor some the volunteers who made Sullivan County EMS work. A new ambulance station in Bluff City is under construction near the Subway and RoadRunner Market on 11E at Riverbend Road. It's being named in honor of Phil Brown and Sabrina Carrier.

The newly constructed EMS station in Kingsport on Gibson Mill Road is named after Paramedic "Junior" Carles Godsey, who died during a rescue mission in Carter County in 1998. Godsey was a veteran and lifetime member of the Kingsport Lifesaving Crew.

Fred McGrew is being remembered too. A new EMS station in Kingsport is near completion. Located beside the Kingsport offices of the Sullivan County Health Department, the ambulance station will be named in honor of Fred McGrew.

The future

The future is uncertain for emergency medical services. Not only are EMS volunteers and fire department volunteers becoming harder to find and recruit - so are their paid counterparts. Many ambulance services across the state, and the country, are operating on a skeleton crew. They have many positions open without qualified candidates to fill them.

EMT and paramedic programs are putting out smaller numbers of students than ever before. People are less interested than they used to be. City fire departments that used to have applicant pools in the hundreds, where they tested and rated them to make selections of the best - are now seeing only a handful of candidates.

The problem is not only emergency services - police is seeing the same issue. We are seeing the trend develop in nursing as well. Hospitals are operating at a severe nursing shortage. The programs at local colleges are turning out nurses... but the hospitals are not able hire them for some reason.

Has the care and dedicated spirit to serve our communities gone away? If so, Where has it gone? You may have seen the public service announcements for the Tennessee Department of Corrections - they're hiring... or trying to hire people. Paid and volunteer ambulance personnel are becoming very hard to come by.

If you are interested, you need only seek out an employer to see what is required. Take a drug screen, pass a criminal background check, and pass an EMT class and you are well on your way to being hired. The same goes for fire departments and police. Take the classes and show up.

The Bluff City Rescue Squad is limping along, thanks to former Junior Squad members like Paramedic Scott Key, now a firefighter-paramedic at Bristol Tennessee Fire Department, and retired paramedic from Sullivan County EMS, Haynes Miller. We've also got Jeff Broyles who's also on the city council.

Hopefully we can limp the agency along. It is now financially sound again, and has begun to rebuild its fleet and equipment to respond where it should be maintained. They continue to seek qualified applicants, or just warm bodies to train and help be qualified. Give them a call if you're interested.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN
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