By Peter Morris
Screeching sirens generally cause one of four reactions for those within earshot. People may
initially look to find out in which direction the sirens are coming from and then if they are being
emitted by ambulances or fire trucks, checking to see if they’ve got to stop and allow emergency vehicles to pass or, finally, glancing quickly in the rear view mirror to see if they’re
being pulled by law enforcement.
The sirens, while all attention-getting, can often represent several different agencies all
responding to the same event. For instance, where there has occurred a major vehicular
accident, fire or other emergency, law enforcement (police, sheriffs or highway patrol) vehicles
might be joined by ambulances with Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) or Paramedics and
fire engines. All of these 911-dispatched services exist for but one purpose, that being to help
those citizens of the High Country when they are injured or involved in traumatic situations.
Basically, these dedicated services and the men and women who initiate contact are all in the
business of saving lives.
Among the front line personnel who initiate emergency medical services are Watauga County’s
Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) whose mission is to first stabilize the injured party.
“The EMT System is a comprehensive system that includes the 911 Communications Center,
First Responder Program, Advanced Life Support Emergency Medical Transport (EMS), and the
Watauga Medical Center (primarily via medical direction),” explained William Holt, Director of
the Watauga County Emergency Services System (EMS). “When someone calls 911, the
communications center (a division of Emergency Services) answers and triages the call in
accordance with approved protocols. Based on the results of that call, first responders are
dispatched for emergency-level calls along with Emergency Medical Services (EMS). If the call
is not considered a life-threatening emergency based on the information received, EMS is
dispatched without lights and sirens” he continued. “Quality assurance and training helps
guide these decision-making processes along with national trends which shape the primary
protocols followed for triaging the call.”
All first responders are trained as a North Carolina Emergency Medical Responder (EMR), with a large number being Emergency Medical Technicians and others receiving higher levels of certification, which includes EMT Basic, EMT Intermediate, and EMT Paramedic. Paramedics have an additional 1500 hours of medical training over EMTs.
EMTs have extensive education and certification in a wide variety of emergency medical situations, including assessing critical illnesses and injuries and performing life saving health care such as working with heart attack victims and administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and assisting with childbirth and trauma.
Paramedics work with more advanced medical situations such as administering oral and intravenous medications, monitoring electrocardiograms (EKGs) and performing tracheotomies. According to Holt, “Watauga County contracts primary 911 transport services with Watauga Medics, Inc.
“This agreement is currently on a 7-year cycle. Watauga Medics also provides interfacility transportation as part of its business model. Secondary 911 transport services are provided by
the Watauga County Rescue Squad, which is an all-volunteer service. There are many other first responder programs that do not do transport but provide care to patients while awaiting
the ambulance’s arrival.”
While the emergency response system is a bit confusing to laymen, it’s easily understood.
When 911 is contacted, first responders are sent based on geographic location, as in when the
Boone Fire Department is directed to Boone locations. Craig Sullivan, the owner of Watauga
Medics Inc., heads the primary EMS transport for all of Watauga County.
Notes Holt, “Cost of emergency services differ. Watauga Medics, Inc. charges fees based on
their contract and the service provided. First responder agencies do not charge any fees nor
does Watauga Rescue if they transport a patient. The baseline funding for availability of
services is provided by property taxes.”
Watauga County has three primary bases for county-wide coverage. Base 1 is located on West King Street in downtown Boone, Base 2 is located on Longview Drive in southern Boone near the hospital, and Base 3 is located on US Highway 321 North in Vilas. Additionally, a fourth truck has been moved to Blowing Rock’s Fire Station during the day as staffing allows. Lastly, the Town of Beech Mountain entered into an agreement with Watauga County to place a 24- hour ambulance in their town limits at the town’s expense. This is a joint venture between Watauga and Avery County, although it’s not routinely used as part of the county-wide system due to its remoteness.
Noted Holt, “The County is currently in the planning phase of adding a fourth permanent base east of Boone to assist in response times in that area. It should be noted that anytime an EMS unit is added to the system this helps the total system by increasing availability of ambulances and reducing the amount of times units are out of position due to being at the hospital.”
Understanding the full scope of Watauga County emergency services, there has been a belief that the Blowing Rock community has had some difficulty in which services to use. According to Holt, “This is a common misnomer. Prior to July 2022, the Blowing Rock Fire Department
contracted with Caldwell County to provide EMS transport service to the northern portion of Caldwell County due to its geographical remoteness. In July 2022, this service reverted to
Caldwell County, and they now serve the same area as previously contracted for with Blowing Rock. This unit does not respond in the Watauga County portion of Blowing Rock. Without exception, Watauga Medics provides primary EMS transport service for all of Watauga
While the varied emergency services available in Watauga County, as in other High Country counties such as Ashe and Avery, this insures all those in need are covered on a 24-hour basis.
Craig Sullivan, of Watauga Medics, says, “Currently, not including the Beech Mtn truck, Watauga County has four 24-hour trucks and one 12-hour truck. These are all Paramedic level trucks and are staffed with 2 providers. Base 1 has a 24-hour truck and a 12-hour truck, Base 2 has two 24-hour trucks, one of which moves to Blowing Rock (as discussed above) and Base 3 has one 24-hour truck.”
While the 24-hour status of Watauga County emergency stations ensures that local services will always have personnel at-the-ready to man vehicles, these conditions demand on-site accommodations for personnel.
“Currently, the permanent bases are all freestanding EMS stations. These facilities have living quarters similar to fire stations and other such facilities around the county. The Blowing Rock and Beech Mountain trucks share space with these respective fire departments,” noted Sullivan. “There are 15-fire departments that service Watauga County. Many of these departments have more than one station to serve their respective districts. In addition, the Watauga County Rescue Squad operates out of its station located on Quail Street, in Boone.”
Perhaps this is an appropriate time to hear from Watauga County’s EMT’s themselves as they reflect on their vital jobs.
Peter Pickering, EMT
“Being a paramedic means being willing to provide comfort, care, and expertise to members of
our community when they need it most. That can require calm confidence in the face frightening or even life-threatening injury and illness or just reassurance during routine encounters. It means recognizing the needs, great or small, of anyone who calls themselves your patient and working to see that those needs are met.”
Pickering continued, “Providing prehospital medical care means that you are trusted by your community simply for the job that you choose to do. In accepting that trust you take on a responsibility that is often overlooked or ignored by those you are there to help, until their hour
of need. Nonetheless, it is a responsibility that motivates you constantly to improve and prove
yourself worthy. In EMS, you are only as good as the care you provide your next patient.”
Angela Seeley, EMT
“It is hard to put into words what being a Paramedic means to me. To put it simply, I think that’s because it’s so much more than just a job. It’s a lifestyle that encompasses multiple different aspects of who you are. For me personally, I always knew I wanted to have a career in medicine; I just didn’t know what that would look like. After both of my parents passing in 2013 and 2014, and dealing with different aspects of medical emergencies, I began to piece it together. I went to ride time at Watauga Medics in order to obtain my EMT Basic, and I was certain that this is what I was meant to do. I then understood the saying, ‘Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’”
Anthony Woodward, EMT
“We EMS personnel don’t always receive the recognition we deserve. This is because we are the ones people don’t want to think about needing. Usually when we show up things have gotten about as bad as they can. We’re the ones that run into your home with bags and equipment and work like mad to save you or someone you love and hopefully get them to the hospital alive.”
Woodward continued, “If we are unable to save them then we are the ones that sit with you on
your couch and explain that your loved one is no longer with us and hold you as you grieve. To
do this job you will experience things daily that will wrench your heart and things that will warm
your heart. Things that will make you cry both tears of hurt and joy. Sometimes you feel like
crying but you’re numb and nothing happens. We put everything we feel on hold to do our jobs
then we clean our ambulances and restock and feel what we need to for a brief minute while
driving to the next call and smile like nothing ever happened when you get out and greet the
next people who need you. ”
Lena Kelbie, EMT
“Being an EMT to me is a job that is fulfilling, tough, and full of challenges. It’s a service
that provides people with the comfort that help is always around the corner. If we can ever
make someone who is already having a bad day feel a little better, it’s a good day.”
Veronica Shelton, EMT
“The job is hard and requires more than you have to give more times than not. I love taking
care of people. Working 24-hour shifts, often with no sleep, maybe a meal or maybe not. We
are expected to be at our very best each call no matter what we have faced that day. We have
to see and do things that brings everything from joy to nightmares for days, months, years.
When so many people have the misconception that every heart that has stopped beating can
be brought back by medics is a grim reality that is most often not the case. There is no better
feeling knowing that you were able to make someone’s bad day better.”
Shelton continued, “Nothing compares to giving that scared elderly person comfort with that
2:00AM 911 call; they just want their vitals taken to know everything is ok. We go into every call
having to think on the fly and having to think out of the box. There is no 912, there is just 911
and that is you. So many tragic things happen that the rest of world only reads about or sees
on social media. We are there on the best and worst days of a stranger’s life, sometimes we
can make it better and sometimes we have to find the words to tell them it’s not going to be
ok. Being a Medic is not a job you clock out, go home and leave work at work. I’ve had calls
that to this day wake me up at night, they come with so many demons. The moment where I
can make a difference in someone’s life is what keeps me hanging on and fighting through the
bad days. I have a huge extended family through my job, fireman, first responders, law
enforcement. Without those ladies and gentlemen, I could not do my job!”
It’s no doubt an exciting life for Watauga County’s many emergency service men and women,
who day and night stand available to respond to situations which, in many instances, can result
in the saving of lives both young and old.
Always on Alert
Having spent seven-hours photographing EMTs in their work environment, photographer Peter
Morris learned firsthand what it takes to be an Emergency Medical Technician or Paramedic.
“Basically, it’s a hurry-up-and-wait profession,” Morris noted. “Emergency calls can come at any time day or night, sending ambulances on every conceivable mission. A baby being born
en route to the hospital, a heart attack victim clinging to life, a major traffic accident where the ambulances will be met by a variety of police and sheriff units and fire trucks, or nonemergency situations where the passenger only needs transport to the hospital,” he explained.
“Bottom line, when not saving lives, the ambulance crews spend time preparing their equipment or washing their vehicles or eight or ten of them watching videos while enjoying pizza in a
communal room at their base.”
“It’s a warm and friendly gathering among co-workers who become an extended family to each other.”
But as one Paramedic noted, “Even though we all sleep here, we never really sleep… always expecting the alarm to call us at any time.”
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