‘Extreme shortage’ of volunteers led to Rescue Squad’s demise, Surry says

Published 2:43 pm Friday, March 10, 2023

Surry County has issued a statement citing an “extreme shortage” of volunteers for the dissolution of its only volunteer ambulance service.

The Surry Volunteer Rescue Squad, founded 59 years ago, announced in a March 1 public notice published in The Smithfield Times that it would “voluntarily relinquish” its state license on April 9 and has already stopped answering calls.

According to the county’s statement, the rescue squad answered less than 2% of Surry’s ambulance calls in the past year. Isle of Wight and Sussex counties, which have mutual aid agreements with Surry, are collectively fielding roughly 20% of Surry’s call volume.

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State law requires every locality to have a “designated emergency response agency.” Surry’s changeover from volunteer to paid emergency medical services has been months in the making.

Surry supervisors voted last July to name Surry County Emergency Medical Services – the county’s paid EMS department – as its state-designated agency pending state licensure. SCEMS received its state license in December to provide basic and advanced life support services. Its dispatchers are also now certified in emergency medical response, which allows them to provide callers with first aid instructions over the phone until help arrives.

“Changing times have overwhelmed volunteer organizations across the nation,” Surry’s statement reads. 

Any EMS agency that goes out of business is required under Virginia’s Administrative Code to submit written notice to the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services at least 90 days in advance, and advertise its intent in a “newspaper of general circulation in its service area,” hence the Times notice.

According to data shared by Marian Hunter, a spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, 94 of Virginia’s volunteer EMS agencies have changed their status to “out of business” since 1997. The total amounts to 13% of the state’s total 688 volunteer and career EMS agencies. Surry is the latest in a three-year statewide wave of volunteer agencies severing decades-old ties with their county governments or outright dissolving.

According to reporting by The Botetourt Bee, a news outlet covering Botetourt County in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Blue Ridge Rescue Squad disbanded in 2020 after 40 years, citing a lack of volunteers. The Madison County Eagle, a newspaper based roughly 25 miles north of Charlottesville, reported in 2021 that Madison supervisors voted to terminate the county’s 22-year partnership with Madison County Rescue Squad “for cause,” citing a lack of available ambulances in service. By November 2021, the Shenandoah Rescue Squad had disbanded and reverted its assets to the Shenandoah Volunteer Fire Company, also blaming a lack of volunteers, according to reporting by the Page County-based Page Valley News.

In 2022, Roanoke-based CBS affiliate WDBJ reported Roanoke County had disbanded its Hollins Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department on the recommendation of an auditor. The News & Record, a newspaper covering Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, then reported earlier this year that the Chase City Rescue Squad and Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad would each disband July 1, again citing a lack of volunteers.

“If a specific EMS agency is ‘out of business,’ volunteers may still be providing service but under the local jurisdiction instead of their agency’s individual license,” Hunter said.

The state’s records, she explained, do not indicate whether any of the agencies that surrendered their state licenses have reorganized under a new county-issued license.

“The required commitment to training hours and the need to be more available to answer increased calls for service has become increasingly difficult for people wishing to volunteer,” Surry County’s statement reads.

According to Hunter, the state’s mandatory time commitment for entry-level emergency medical technician certification increased in 2012 from 121 hours to 154. By 2015, the state had rescinded the 154-hour requirement and left the length of the training up to the discretion of each program’s coordinator and overseeing physician, though 154 hours remains the state’s recommendation. In 2012, the state also increased the number of continuing education hours from 36 to 40 hours for EMTs to maintain their certification. EMTs have four years to complete the 40 hours unless they choose to seek or maintain certification through the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, which is a two-year licensure program.

Paramedic certification, the highest level of EMT competency, is a three-year licensure in Virginia or every two years via the National Registry, with the number of initial and continuing education classroom hours left to the discretion of each accredited training program.

According to past reporting by the Times, as of 2018 when Surry County broke ground on a $4 million emergency operations center that was to double as a 911 dispatch center and base for the rescue squad, Surry had eight paid staff members and 28 volunteers.

The Surry Volunteer Rescue Squad had eight officers averaging 2.3 hours per week in 2016 and ended the year with a $13,022 surplus according to the Internal Revenue Service Form 990 nonprofits file in lieu of a tax return. By 2017, it had nine officers each averaging six hours per week but ended the year with a $4,145 deficit. By 2018, its nine officers’ average hours per week had dropped to 1.4 but it ended the year with a $67,322 surplus. By 2019, the most recent Form 990 on file on the IRS website, it had grown to 10 officers averaging 1.9 hours per week and ended the year with a $192,730 surplus.

The volunteer agency’s remaining officers haven’t said how many unpaid emergency medical technicians remain. John Seward, a former volunteer who was on Surry’s Board of Supervisors at the time of the groundbreaking, told the Times last week that there’s “only a couple people left.”

The county’s statement notes Surry is working to grow SCEMS beyond paid staff by developing a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT.

CERT is a nationwide disaster preparedness training program that teaches adult and teen volunteers fire safety, search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations.

The county is also seeking applicants interested in becoming nationally certified emergency medical technicians and volunteers to serve with SCEMS upon completion of county-sponsored EMT courses.