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Rowan Rescue Squad puts plan in place for next steps amid reorganization talks

SALISBURY — David Earnhardt has been with the Rowan Rescue Squad for 19 years. He chose the agency over the fire service at a time when he was involved in both because he wanted to potentially serve a greater number of people throughout the county.

Right now, the Rescue Squad is at a crossroads of its own and its future is unclear.

Eddie Cress, who had been chief since 2013, was placed on administrative leave for 60 days. County Emergency Services Director Chris Soliz was appointed as interim chief. No official reason was given for the decision to place Cress on leave.

His wife, LuAnn Cress, was a battalion chief and his son, Austin, was a squad member. Both are no longer with the agency.

During a Tuesday night meeting, Rescue Squad members received some optimistic news about how the organization is doing financially. They also discussed reasons why change needs to occur within the department and why members should be a part of the process of deciding policy changes to address nepotism, hierarchy in leadership, dividing the duties of a chief and administrator and resolving any budget issues.

“This was a volunteer organization without the county funding, at one point. It can be again,” said squad member Mike Brady.

“There’s many challenges, but we have the opportunity to continue on as an organization. Change what needs to be changed,” Earnhardt said.

County Manager Aaron Church offered reassurance in a statement provided to the Post.

“Under the leadership of Chief Soliz, the county is committed to working with the Rescue Squad, fire departments and community to ensure that rescue services continue to be provided to citizens in need while preserving the history of rescue services,” Church wrote. “Naturally, all things evolve and change with time, and we look forward to fostering positive relationships with all stakeholders as the Rescue Squad examines the reality of changing funding models.”

Next steps

An extension request was granted, and Soliz will continue as interim chief through June 30. He said at that time, officials could ask for another extension or have someone else in place.

Deputy Chief and board member Mike McDaniel said squad members are concerned about rushing to find a solution.

“We don’t want to rush by any means. There could be some different options we haven’t considered yet,” Soliz assured him.

An anonymous survey is in the works to ask members for their opinions and suggestions, and results will be available at the next general membership meeting, Soliz said.

One option that has been brought up is the city or county fire departments taking on the duties that the Rescue Squad has covered.

Rescue Squad board member Bill Feather noted that some of the ideas he heard Tuesday were not among the original suggestions offered at a prior board meeting, and he said members should look at all options and not just what the county may have suggested.

Feather said he does not want the change to look like a forced takeover.

Rowan County Commissioner Mike Caskey, a Rescue Squad board member, asked if the county cuts funding and the squad doesn’t provide ambulance back-up services, what would the squad do?

Soliz answered by saying the squad would provide rescue service.

Financial concerns

Rowan County United Way has for years allocated money to the rescue squad, which is a nonprofit entity. But the United Way recently adopted a new fundraising format, moving toward agencies that target what a recent assessment deemed the greatest needs. They include mental health and substance abuse. This could affect whether the Rescue Squad receives United Way funding in the future.

There are other sources of funding or revenue for the squad that include a portrait fundraiser, but it’s expected to bring in less than what was budgeted last year. Walmart also usually offers a grant that officials said was either not applied for this year or has yet to be received.

The agency does receive revenue for ambulance transportation estimated at $126,000, but in the past few months it received just over $11,000. The Rescue Squad not only assists fire departments with wrecks and fire calls but provides backup ambulance service for EMS.

Feather asked the question that members said they wanted to know the answer to: Could the organization be sustained without county funding or a United Way allocation and with little revenue from ambulance transportation?

Soliz said one option is to reduce the amount of money the county would contribute.

Caskey said the county has not set a dollar amount for what it would continue to fund or whether it would pull funding.

Soliz said the squad is making payments on two vehicles — an ambulance and a Dodge Ram — totaling about $36,000 owed.

T.J. Brown, of Rowan County Emergency Services, took the board through the bills he’s received in the past few months.

Feather said before the squad could even consider turning over any equipment and property to the county, it should be appraised.

Soliz said if it comes to turning over equipment, the audit has some details about property and equipment. Some equipment is being stored at the Rescue Squad station in Rockwell in a building that also houses Rowan County Sheriff’s Office equipment.

Feather said the squad could shut down that location and bring the equipment to its Salisbury headquarters on Julian Road. It’s estimated the Rockwell location costs $12,000 a year.

The organization has not made any recent large purchases or hired new staff.

Soliz added that once the board looks at the numbers, some of the most expensive items could be to replace turnout gear and dive suits.

Feather suggested that if there’s an ambulance the squad doesn’t need, it could be sold and the money used to buy items they do need like turnout gear.

As to Earnhardt, he said after the meeting he was a little more at ease knowing the board wasn’t just going to shut the Rescue Squad down but make a conscious effort to seek a real resolution.

The Rescue Squad board typically meets once a quarter but has in the last few months held multiple meetings. No future meeting date was set.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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