Surry Volunteer Rescue Squad dissolves

Published 4:55 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

Surry County’s only volunteer ambulance service is dissolving after 59 years.

According to a public notice published in The Smithfield Times’  March 1 edition, the Surry Volunteer Rescue Squad will “voluntarily relinquish” its state license on April 9, and has already stopped answering calls.

The Times is still working to identify the reason. Neither the emergency medical services agency’s personnel nor county officials were available Friday to provide an official explanation.

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According to Robert Elliott, the current chairman of Surry’s Board of Supervisors, the county is still fielding 911 ambulance calls with paid emergency medical technicians operating out of its emergency operations center on Route 10.

That won’t be enough, contends Isle of Wight County Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Brian Carroll, whose agency frequently has to send its ambulances across the county line when no Surry ambulances are available. 

Surry County’s “leadership has absolutely failed,” Carroll said. “Regardless of cost, they need to staff ambulances up there.”

Kinsey Chilcutt, who spoke in 2021 on behalf of Surry’s Office of Emergency Services during a state hearing on Riverside Health Systems’ proposed 50-bed Isle of Wight County hospital, told state officials that as of that year, Surry had only two paid EMTs on call each day. When both are in transit to and from hospitals 30 to 40 miles away in Hopewell, Newport News or Suffolk, Surry has relied on volunteers and mutual aid agreements with neighboring jurisdictions.

Neither Surry nor Isle of Wight presently have a hospital of their own, though Riverside’s Isle of Wight hospital is to open by 2025.

Surry Emergency Services Chief Ray Phelps, who oversees the county’s paid staff, did not immediately respond to the Times’ inquiries about the impact of the dissolution of the Surry Volunteer Rescue Squad.

In December, when Isle of Wight and Surry entered an agreement requiring the latter to pay $1,000 every time an Isle of Wight ambulance crosses the county border, Phelps told Surry supervisors that as of Dec. 1 Isle of Wight had answered 179 of Surry’s EMS calls over the past 2½ years. Chief Pat Humphries, Phelps’ counterpart in Isle of Wight, estimated in June that a Surry unit had responded to an Isle of Wight call “maybe one time” in the two years he’s been in his position. Out-of-county calls can add 30 to 45 minutes to a unit’s response time and in some cases have resulted in the deaths of patients who didn’t receive help in time, Phelps said.

According to The Smithfield Times’ archives, the Surry Volunteer Rescue Squad began in 1964 with 11 members and the purchase of a used circa-1956 ambulance from a squad on the opposite side of the James River. In the early 1970s, the squad started operating out of a converted car dealership on Rolfe Highway.

By 1983, during former Surry Supervisor John Seward’s three-year tenure as a volunteer, the rescue squad was down to just six members. At the time, he’d been volunteering at the nearby Surry Volunteer Fire Department and living adjacent to the dealership-turned-rescue station.

“I could hear them over there waiting to go on a call … so I went and helped them,” Seward said.

By 1997, the squad’s membership was back up to 25 and was averaging around 525 EMS calls per year. By 2018, when Surry County broke ground on its new combined rescue squad and emergency operations center on Colonial Trail, Surry had 28 volunteers and eight paid EMS staff. Seward attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

Now, “there’s only a couple people left,” Seward said.

Surry land transfer records show the dealership-turned-rescue station was sold last March to David Coggin for $200,000. It has since been converted to the office of Coggin Electrical Specialists Inc.