Harry Sifford, father of Rowan EMS, dies at 88

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 31, 2012

By Mark Wineka
GRANITE QUARRY – Harry Sifford, who as county commissioner worked tirelessly to establish emergency medical service in Rowan County, died Wednesday at the Lutheran Home at Trinity Oaks.
“If there’s a father of EMS in the county, it would be Harry,” said Wayne Ashworth, who was the county’s first emergency services director and is now retired.
Sifford was 88.
He served as both mayor and alderman in Granite Quarry and, as a Democrat, had a busy four-year term (1982-86) on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
As a commissioner, Sifford guided local efforts to move the county from a private ambulance service to a government-supported EMS.
The Rowan County EMS Division encompasses a $4 million budget and about 100 employees today, including 45 full-time and 45 part-time emergency medical technicians/paramedics.
Fees collected for services of the division account for roughly $3.2 million annually. The county department has six stations.
Sifford became a well-known, hard-working public servant, who received the state’s highest honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, he manned state and local positions with the American Legion.
During his life, Sifford also had keen interests in the Masons, Shriners, the Lutheran church, Salvation Army, Rowan County Veterans Council, health services, recreation and family genealogy.
Sifford was a retired executive for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina – a career giving him sharp insights into rising medical costs, even back in the 1980s when he fought for improved emergency services.
He saw an improved Rowan EMS as having a positive impact on medical costs, arguing that getting people to the hospital faster might reduce their length of stay.
With Hall Steele and Jamima DeMarcus, Sifford comprised a Democratic majority on the Board of Commissioners during his four years.
Steele recalled Thursday that Bill Mills, owner of C&M Ambulance Service, informed the county “the last day of May he was going to quit the last day of June,” leading commissioners to scramble to have some kind of EMS in place.
“He led the way and did a tremendous job,” Steele said of Sifford. “It ended up where we are now, which is as good as it gets.”
Rowan County’s EMS was established in 1984. Emergency Management Services Director Frank Thomason said Sifford pushed for constant improvement in the agency, even after he left the board, wanting the employees to have the highest of training.
Thomason said Sifford was never satisfied with the EMS providing just basic transportation to the hospital.
He also lobbied for more stations to decrease response times. The East Rowan station is dedicated to Sifford, Ashworth noted.
Interestingly, in 1988, Sifford went before the Board of Commissioners and urged it to improve emergency services. “It will take a tragedy to make it happen,” he told the Post about that same time. “It’s got to get close to somebody. There has to be a case where some important person dies and we get there a little late, and the doctor says, ‘This life could have been saved if we had gotten there earlier.'”
A week after his visit to the commissioners, Sifford had a heart attack at his Granite Quarry home. All the ambulances Rowan County had were tied up on other calls.
Sifford survived, and credit went to the Rowan Rescue Squad, which was filling in for an overburdened, under-equipped EMS.
“He was very intelligent,” Steele said, “and had a lot of experience dealing with insurance and the public.”
Ashworth described Sifford as a true gentleman who was polite to everyone, whether he agreed with them or not. Ashworth said Sifford commanded a great deal of respect from both Democrats and Republicans.
“Harry always had time to listen,” Ashworth added, and he credited that trait with leading to Sifford’s knack for asking incisive questions.
A visitation will be held from 6-8 p.m. today at Powles Funeral Home. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Organ Lutheran Church.Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.