Bridget Way was 5 years old when a green-and-white Wake County Emergency Medical Services ambulance pulled into her driveway after she had dislocated her elbow. Now she's a paramedic and may be one of those arriving to calls in a brand new ambulance with a 40-year-old paint scheme.
The service began in 1976 after county commissioners considered whether to renew a contract with a private ambulance service for Raleigh or set up their own medical care for the sick and injured in Raleigh. The rest of the county was covered by volunteer rescue squads then.
Russell Capps, named the first EMS director, got orders to get a new ambulance service up and running in 90 days.
“We didn’t quite make that,” Capps said, getting going in four months instead of three, in August 1976.
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Thursday, Way and her 4-month-old son, Colton, were with current and former employees celebrating the anniversary at the downtown Station 1 on East Davie Street, where EMS unveiled a 2016 AEV ambulance made in Jefferson and tricked out with the service’s original green-and-white paint job and logo.
The reason for green, Capps said, was that Raleigh police cars were sometimes referred to on emergency radios as “blue-and-whites.” EMS, he said, decided green would be a good way to avoid confusion.
The green-and-white ambulance, which Assistant Chief Jeff Hammerstein said will go into service in about two weeks, will be state-of-the-art inside. It is being outfitted with all the same communications and medical gear that will go into six other new ambulances this year, but those will sport the more familiar blue-and-white markings.
All the ambulances have large, reflective chevrons on the back doors, however, as a way to make sure drivers can see them at emergency scenes.
The “retro” rig, as Hammerstein called it, is expected to answer about 8,000 EMS calls in its four-year service life.
Dr. Barry Bunn, a Wake EMS veteran, spoke to the small crowd on the station’s equipment floor. Bunn, a Raleigh native, was a full-time employee early on, then a part-time EMT while attending medical school at East Carolina University and now is the medical director for Edgecombe County EMS and heads a group of doctors who staff the emergency room at Vidant Edgecombe Hospital in Tarboro.
“You never get anywhere without help,” Bunn said, recalling the camaraderie among the early staff that operated four ambulances out of three stations.
About 30 people worked for the county when EMS began, said Capps, the first director. Today, Hammerstein said, the countywide service has about 260 employees. The county’s crews work with two contracted services, Cary Area EMS and Eastern Wake EMS, and a Town of Apex EMS operation.
All are dispatched through the county’s 911 center, and all ambulances are covered by a computer system that lets dispatchers send the vehicle closest to where one is needed.
In 2015, Hammerstein said, the EMS service, which includes the county EMS Department and the other three agencies, handled 96,215 calls. That was up 7 percent from 2014, he said, and he expects the number to top 100,000 this year.
Capps recounted how each member of the original staff went to Sears to buy green shirts and pants as a uniform because those weren’t in the budget.
When winter came, however, the county commissioners scrounged up enough to buy uniform coats for the EMTs, Capps said.
Bunn said Wake’s EMS operation has grown over its 40 years from the operation he knew as a rookie to “one of the top, premier services in the country.”