No one knows for sure yet how things will play out, but on the surface, it appears the Haywood County Rescue squad has hit rock bottom and is trying to rebound.
This winter, things started going south for the organization that was formed in 1958 and gained notoriety as the first all-volunteer squad in the nation with trained paramedics. The organization grew to provide a valuable component that supplemented the county’s emergency services.
However, a series of events led to financial difficulties for the Rescue Squad that resulted in several staff members not getting paid, a reshuffling of organizational leaders, the loss of a steady income source, and most recently, the loss of a license to run the ambulances at all.
Now, the organization has changed both its board and command staff. The Rescue Squad’s new chief, Leah Sharpe, said the first order of business was to get payroll caught up, which she said has happened and cost about $11,000.
However, at least one former member, Juan Martinez, said he hasn’t been paid everything he’s owed.
”I was paid for my time prior to the breakdown but have not received compensation for the time between Jan. 1, 2019, to Jan 13, 2019, when I was reinstated,” he said in an email.
On a follow-up interview, Sharpe stood firm on her stance that everyone has indeed been paid in full.
Now there is a new problem to address. Recently, the Rescue Squad lost its license to run ambulances because the units weren’t properly decked out with the necessary medical supplies.
That meant volunteers couldn’t respond to medical calls such as emergency traffic accidents and cardiac arrests.
“A couple months ago, funds were dwindling down again,” said assistant chief Grayson Sluder. “We didn’t quite have the monies to pay for the upkeep on the disposable items in our ambulances.”
“We shut our ambulances down,” he added. “We called the county and said, ‘hey, we don’t have this stuff to upkeep what we need to. Don’t dispatch us on any ambulance calls.’”
Sluder said getting ambulances back up and running is the top priority for the Rescue Squad, adding that once they get one truck up to the standard, they will get their license back.
In the meantime, the county has had to put as many as eight ambulances at a time in service to make up for the response gap in both transport services and medical calls that used to be handled by the Rescue Squad.
For now, the Rescue Squad doesn’t have much of an active role in emergency response.
“We’re responding to all technical rescues,” Sluder said. “Search and rescue, swift-water, high angle rope rescues, elevator rescues. Everything else is just on hold for now.”
Recent fundraisers have been the only source of income for the Rescue Squad. While Sluder said they were able to secure some donations from a mail-in fundraiser, the organization is also raffling off a free rifle or shotgun from WNC Carry in Clyde.
Tickets for that are one for $5 or five for $20 and can be purchased by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The last day to purchase tickets is Dec. 1, and the drawing will be held on Dec. 2.
“We’ve been in discussions with the board to come up with other types of fundraisers we can do to boost us to get through next year when we do our fund drive again,” Sluder said.
No more transports
The major source of revenue for the Rescue Squad used to be from transporting nursing home or medical patients to and from medical services. Most of the funds for such transports came through insurance or government reimbursements, but part of the organizational difficulties included a failure to properly bill clients, which caused the revenue stream to dry up.
Meanwhile, the Haywood County commissioners funded extra ambulances and staff to fill in the gap in services, so it is unlikely the Rescue Squad will regain that revenue source.
The other thing the group has done is try to sell some equipment to make the money needed to get an ambulance in service again.
“We just got done selling a six-wheel ATV to one of our members who offered money for it,” Sluder said. “It’s something that was not being used. It hasn’t been used in several years. We’re going to downsize our fleet just a little bit.”
Part of the problem with the Rescue Squad, Sluder said, is that the division between the transport services and the rest of the organization created tension, which led to a lack of communication.
“We’ll do better if we have a one-team concept,” he said.
But that may not even be enough to save the organization. To put it simply, Rescue Squad may be a victim of the times.
“It used to be if there was a car wreck down here somewhere, half a dozen people would leave work at the mill and go down to the wreck,” Sluder said. “Business owners can’t or won’t let you do that anymore. Not that they don’t want to. It’s just not possible because then someone has to shut the entire production down.”
As of now, the Rescue Squad is looking for more volunteers.
“We don’t require any prior certifications or experience,” Sluder said. “Now, a good chunk of our membership does also come off of other agencies and fire departments and stuff like that, but we’ll get you the training and experience you need and we’ll send you to these classes to get you those certifications.”