Community Issues That Matter: Carter County Rescue Squad has been saving lives and property for 61 years
By Bob Robinson
It was a fall day in 1951. Leaves were turning a golden hue. A gentle wind was blowing across the pristine waters of Watauga Lake, creating choppy waves in its wake. It was light jacket weather. There was an eerie silence in the air.
As family and friends watched from the shore, members of the Carter County Rescue Squad, an all-volunteer organization, pulled grappling hooks through the waters of Watauga Lake to recover the body of a drowning victim.
Three squad members, working from cramped space in an eight-foot aluminum boat, routinely conducted dragging operations under the blazing heat of the sun and in the cold and dampness of winter in Watauga Lake. One piloted the boat from its motor while the other two worked grappling hooks from their side of the boat. There was no room for error or relaxation.
On shore, other squad members attempted to comfort friends and family members, as best they could, while recovery operations were underway. When the body was found and placed inside the small boat, a prayer was delivered by the squad members for the victim, the victim’s family and friends, a tradition that continues today.
The Carter County Rescue Squad received its Charter from the State of Tennessee as a non-profit organization on Dec. 31, 1951. The charter of incorporation was signed by Ray D. Johnson, Harlan Oaks, Earl M. Reasor, Dan M. Laws Jr., J. Ralph Jones, Bill A. Toncray and Noel Fletcher and witnessed by Jack Brumit.
From its fledgling beginning in the 1950s, after TVA constructed Watauga and Wilbur dams, the Carter County Rescue Squad has rescued hundreds of individuals, extricated many from vehicle crashes and administered medical treatment to patients who were being transported to a hospital in a Carter County Rescue Squad ambulance.
Manpower, training, equipment and the response time are critical in a life and death situation. That’s why specialized training is a vital part of the job description of first responders employed by the Carter County Rescue Squad today.
Over time, the number of squad members has increased from approximately four volunteer members to a professional, well-trained staff of 40 individuals. The volume of emergency responses has also increased from 30, some 61 years ago, to 12,000 per year.
Terry Arnold, director, joined the Carter County Rescue Squad in 1976 as an Emergency Medical Technician. Today, Arnold oversees an operating budget of $3.5 million per year. He operates the Carter County Rescue Squad like a business, while making sound business decisions that positively affect the bottom line of the organization.
“Only a select few have continued to be members of the squad. Maintaining adequate staffing levels has become an issue due to training requirements for emergency medical services to maintain a high standard of medical care set by the Tennessee Department of Health. It cost money and time for training. It has been difficult to maintain that high level of medical care,” said Arnold.
The professionalism, training and preparedness exemplified by the Carter County Rescue Squad have received recognition from their counterparts in the region and state, as well as the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security officials.
Today, there are four squad stations strategically located in the 341 square miles of Carter County, thereby reducing the squad’s emergency response time in serving a population of 57,185 who live along 831 road miles in Carter County.
While the original mission of the rescue squad specified in its charter has not changed, the number of services and required training has expanded. Among the services provided by the squad today are:
— Search and rescue operations;
— High and low angle rescue operations;
— Trench rescue;
— Confined space rescue;
— Hazardous materials response;
— Swift water rescue;
— Body recovery;
— Body transport;
— Missing persons searches;
— Automobile accident extrication;
— Accident response;
— Community service; Indigent care;
— Underwater search and recovery
— Prisoner transportation;
— SWAT medics;
— Transportation of individuals needing medical assistance;
— Public event standby; and,
— Radio communication support for other emergency responders.
What has changed is the all-volunteer members in the squad are now paid employees. Federal and state regulations require each person to be trained. It is now required that any person providing care in an ambulance must be either an EMT-IV or Paramedic. Both categories require a minimum of a community college degree and extensive training and regular updating of their training.
Recently, a total of 40 members of the Carter County Rescue Squad received an average of 81 hours each in paramedic and EMT-IV training.
Ed McNeil, who joined the Carter County Rescue Squad in 1997, is the HazMat section leader.
The HazMat unit of the Carter County Rescue Squad currently has 16 members who were certified in HazMat after completing the required initial training and refresher training. McNeil and Anthony Roberts are Certified HazMat Specialists, the highest level of certification that required six years of training.
Training is an ongoing process for all squad members, according to Roberts.
Chris Lennon, who joined the Carter County Rescue Squad in 2002 as a volunteer, is interim rescue coordinator for water and land search and rescue. James Heaton, section leader for land search and rescue, is also a member of the swift water search and rescue team.
On average, the squad responds to five to 10 rescues each year at Twisting Falls, at Elk Mills, and at Laurel Fork off Highway 91 north in Elizabethton. Stalwart squad members must often rappel steep rock faces and cliffs to rescue victims. Recently, the squad spent 210 man hours over a two-day period in the search and recovery of drowning victims at Laurel Fork. Additional man hours were spent by volunteer fire departments and the U.S. Forest Service. In a recent land search and rescue of a lost child on Walnut Mountain near the Tennessee and North Carolina state line, the squad spent an average of 200 man hours over a two-day period.
All total, approximately 20 squad members are trained in water and land search and rescue, according to Lennon. “Every six months, the squad members are required to take a refresher course,” Lennon said.
The latest technology is used in each water and land search and rescue. It includes GPS mapping, planning and tracking of movements by squad members; use of satellite telephones for communication, if needed; wearing dry suits that cost from $700 to $1,000 each for HazMat protection in swift water rescues; and utilizing an underwater robot and side scan sonar that sends and receives sound waves to locate drowning victims, Lennon said.
Total revenues received from Carter County government the past nine years have declined by approximately 87 percent, Arnold said. The amounts are as follows:
Year Amount 911 charge
2004 $340,000 none
2012 $205,000 none
2013 $104,000 $60,000
Other receivables come from payments from Medicare, secondary insurance providers, and tax-deductible donations to the Carter County Rescue Squad, designated by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501©3 organization.
Unless additional operational funds are forthcoming, two new light duty rescue trucks, recently purchased at a cost of $80,000, will not be equipped or placed in service to shorten the response time to outlying areas of Carter County, according to Arnold.
Among other high ticket items in the vehicle fleet is the squad’s large crash truck, purchased in 2002 at an approximate cost of $140,000. An additional $110,000 was used to provide equipment for the crash truck.
There are 11 ambulances in the Carter County Rescue Squad fleet. Each ambulance cost approximately $112,000, plus an additional $90,000 to equip each ambulance.
The Tennessee Department of Health sets standards for vehicles, equipment and paramedics-emergency medical services personnel. They must be certified by the Tennessee Department of Health. Each ambulance is periodically inspected throughout the year on unannounced visits.
Nancy Bailey is the paramedic billing specialist for the Carter County Rescue Squad. According to Bailey, there is a mileage charge and a base rate charge for the level of care provided to the patient by paramedics-emergency medical technicians while being transported in a squad ambulance.
“Advanced Life Support is the highest level of care, followed by Basic Life Support,” Bailey said. For patients who are on Medicare, Medicare pays the Carter County Rescue Squad 80 percent of the amount allowed by Medicare. The balance, or 20 percent, is billed to the secondary insurance provider or to the patient if they do not have a secondary insurance provider. If the patient is on TennCare, the patient is not responsible for the amount not paid by TennCare. It is written off, Bailey said.
The Carter County Rescue Squad offers a financial assistance arrangement to patients with limited income in paying bills. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the Squad wrote off $433,980 in uncollectable debt and another $1,092,000 in insurance write-downs, according to Arnold.
Governance of the Carter County Rescue Squad is provided by its board of directors. Current members of the board are Elizabethton City Councilman Sam Shipley, chairman and president; Terry Arnold, secretary; Dr. Vance Shaw, medical director; Richard Norris, attorney; Elizabethton City Councilwoman Nancy Alsup; Chris Williams; Thomas White; Smith Davenport; Jeanette Hitchcock; and Powell Ellis.
Since 1951, members of the Carter County Rescue squad have been dedicated and professional in serving residents and visitors to Carter County 24 hours a day, seven days a week despite personal sacrifices and financial hardships encountered along the way.
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