30 years: From REMAS to Rowan EMS

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2014

The sirens go on with the flip of a switch, and Rowan EMS Battalion Chief Bill Hamrick accelerates the gas. In a matter of minutes, he’s on the scene of a call in the western part of the county where an infant girl’s tracheotomy tube has become blocked.
Hamrick oversees the operation as medics with the Rowan County Rescue Squad and Locke Fire Department deliver aid to the child before she’s taken to the hospital.
When the responders are done and the child and her home health nurse are in the back of a Rescue Squad truck, Hamrick jumps back into his truck to continue making his daily rounds.
The veteran responder didn’t set out to make medical calls his life’s work. He intended to become a firefighter. But when he began working with Rowan County Emergency Medical Services as emergency medical technician in November 1984, just four months after the county agency was formed, he found a home.
On July 2, Rowan EMS will celebrate 30 years of service.
Before Rowan County EMS assumed the role it has in recent years, medical calls were the sole responsibility of C&M Ambulance Service. The private franchise ambulance service, which was owned by Pless Cauble and Bill Mills, eventually didn’t renew its franchise, leaving Rowan County commissioners the task of finding a replacement. The county created the Rowan Emergency Medical Ambulance Service, known commonly in those days by the REMAS acronym. The emergency medical service was part of the county’s newest department — Public Safety, Ambulance, Rescue.
Commissioners had a month to come up with a budget, hire a director, find a head office, staff the service and buy equipment. C&M Ambulance had operated on a $90,000 annual allocation from the county, but a new county service would need a bigger budget. In the 1984-85 county budget, the board allotted a little less than half a million dollars.
A month before REMAS became the official county ambulance service, the county hired Al Upton, then an Iredell County paramedic. Upton would go on to resign three months later after those closest to him said he was concerned the county was only providing enough money for a “second-rate” ambulance service, according to a 1984 Post article.
The county quickly appointed Salisbury firefighter Joe Sulkowski.
Two ambulances operated out of a former gas station at 302 N. Main St. that was remodeled for EMS headquarters.
There were two ambulances in Salisbury and one ambulance truck in Kannapolis at the police station. Dispatchers were also in Kannapolis answering 911 calls.
“It was long distance back then to call from Kannapolis to Salisbury,” Hamrick said.
The Kannapolis ambulance eventually moved into the back of Linn-Honeycutt Funeral Home in southern Rowan. Rufus Honeycutt, co-founder of the funeral home, provided a place to store the ambulance at no cost to the county.
“The only condition was, when they had a funeral they didn’t want an ambulance there,” Hamrick said.
He said medics would take a lunch or dinner break until the funeral was over.
Eventually, that ambulance was moved from the funeral home to the former Landis Public Works building on East Garden Street beside the Landis fire station.
In 1985, Wayne Ashworth was hired as the Rowan County Emergency Services Director, and EMS service was placed within his department. That same year, Sulkowski resigned as EMS manager and Terry Barber replaced him.
In the early days, EMS supervisors dispatched responders to calls from what is now the EMS administrative office at Old Concord Road, Hamrick said. The dispatchers would a take 911 call and hand over an address to the medics on a slip of paper.
In June 1985, EMS receives a call from a pregnant woman, Norma Brown, whose contractions were about a minute apart. Medics arrived within minutes to deliver Debra Lynn Brown. A Post article written shortly after the baby’s birth, said the baby was her fourth. Norma Brown reportedly told responders she wasn’t going to make it to the hospital. The Post found the little baby who was 5 pounds and 8 ounces, however repeated attempts to arrange an interview were not successful.
In 1986, medical technicians began practicing at the intermediate level, allowing them to offer a higher level of care. Two years later, a station, housing a fourth ambulance was placed on Statesville Boulevard, near Hurley School Road. The new station allowed quicker response to the western part of the county, Hamrick said.
Hamrick recalled an ambulance wreck in February 1986 carrying former sheriff John Stirewalt and his wife. The wreck happened on Lentz Road, Hamrick said, and the ambulance ran off the road in a curve. There was heavy fog, a 1986 Post article reported.
Hamrick said the ambulance flipped on the passenger’s side and Stirewalt’s wife and the driver had to climb out through a window. The couple, an EMT and a driver were not seriously hurt. Hamrick was told that when responders opened the back of the ambulance, Stirewalt was still strapped to a stretcher, which had turned over on its side.
In 1989, Terry Barber resigned after three years and later moved to Wilson County, where he has remained as director of its emergency medical service. In the same year Barber resigned, Beth Connell became the new manager in December.
Technicians began performing at the advanced intermediate level in 1990, and two years later the Salisbury station was demolished to make room for the Rowan County Justice Center.
The Salisbury station moved to a rented house on West Thomas Street until a permanent location could be found, Hamrick said.
In 1992, technicians began performing at the paramedic level, the highest level allowed in the state.
A new station was built in the eastern part of the county on Saint Matthews Church Road, near Stokes Ferry Road.
It would be 10 years before the county built another EMS station. The station opened on N.C. 152, west of China Grove, as a way to provide a quicker response to calls in the Millbridge, Enochville and Atwell areas.
A new central Salisbury station opened in November 2008, and a mobile telecommunications unit was added. Eventually, firefighters also began providing medical response. Hamrick is also a medical captain with Locke Fire Department.
Nearly 21 years after she was appointed to replace Barber, Connell retired.
When Connell retired, the training officer, Lennie Cooper, was appointed to succeed her. Cooper remains the head of Rowan EMS, serving as manager since 2010.
Rowan County EMS now operates under the Department of Emergency Services, which also includes fire and emergency management.
Rowan Emergency Services Director Frank Thomason said the vision was to create an umbrella department. Rowan EMS makes up about 85 percent of the total staff of the Department of Emergency Services, he said.
In January, the most recent station was added beside the Cleveland Fire Department, which shortened the response time in the western part of the county. The facility cost about $186,000.
The Cleveland station can be moved if the Cleveland Fire Department decides to expand, Hamrick said.
He said the Cleveland station will provide services to people who historically went to the hospital out of the county by private vehicles. He credits Cleveland residents with pushing for a station in their area.
“They approached commissioners a year before the decision was even made to build,” Thomason said.
He recalled that residents near the Liberty EMS station circulated a petition.
Thomason said growth models predict the next biggest surge of growth will come from the Rockwell area, and it is likely they’ll need an EMS station.
Rowan EMS has had slow, but continual growth, he said, because funding has always been an issue.
There were times when there were no funds to support the need for a new EMS station, Thomason said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.