ELIZABETHTON — The creation of Watauga Lake had a direct impact on the forming of the Carter County Rescue Squad, which received its organizational charter in 1951.
There aren’t too many of the founders left to tell the story, but Powell Ellis has heard the stories from the men who helped found it. Ellis joined the rescue squad in 1970 and heard the many of the tales during his 41 years of service to the squad.
“Watauga Lake was the reason they formed the Rescue Squad,” Ellis said. There had never been a big lake in the county before and the residents were unfamiliar with the dangers such a body of water posed. The founders of the squad knew there would be drownings and saw the need for an organization to drag for bodies and rescue the survivors.
Watauga Dam was started before World War II, but with the country’s all out effort to win the war, work on the dam was halted until after the war. As the dam finally neared completion in 1949, several men began working on forming a rescue squad.
Ellis said some of the founders included Earl Schamblin and Jack Brumit. He said many of the first members and the deputies of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department were close knit and worked together.
The rescue squad members were all volunteers and the sheriff’s deputies were paid, but not much. They even had to furnish their own cars to patrol in.
Ellis said the first vehicle operated by the squad was a hearse donated by Tetrick’s Funeral Home. Their second was a surplus vehicle from the Army. The first station for the rescue squad was set up in the location where the Elizabethton Police Department is now located.
“It was an old horse stables,” Ellis said. The squadsmen did the work of converting the stables to a headquarters.
The volunteer squadsmen got help in organizing from the leaders of the community.
“The businessmen of the county helped get it started,” Ellis said. They handled the business side of the operation and told the men not to worry about the finances.
Ellis said the squad traditionally held three roadblocks a year where donations were solicited from motorists. If the squad had unexpected expenses, Ellis said the businessmen who were the board of directors simply called the squad members to hold an additional roadblock. There were also other fundraisers such as bake sales. There was also a tradition of donating to the squad, especially by families that had been helped by the squad.
The founders had been right about the impact of the new lake. In the early years the squad spent many days dragging the lake for drowning victims.
But Ellis said the main role of the squad soon became responding to automobile wrecks. In those days before seat belts and other safety features, wrecks frequently involved serious injury.
There also weren’t any tools to extract victims from wrecked cars. Ellis said tow trucks were sometimes used to pry an opening through which a victim could be removed.
Ellis said the squad members were trained in first aid, but their main role was to get the victim to the hospital as quickly as possible. At the time Ellis joined the squad in 1970, the organization had six station wagons to do the transporting.
There was very little equipment or medication on board these station wagon ambulances. Ellis said one piece of equipment was a “Minute Man” a breathing device that allowed oxygen to be administered and had a balloon safety device that would keep from placing too much oxygen in the lungs and rupturing them.
Ellis said there was a lot of pride among the volunteers. They always wore white coveralls when they went on a call and Ellis said the men were immensely proud of this uniform. They were expected to keep them spotlessly clean and as white as they were when they were new.
The community also had a lot of respect for the squad members, Ellis said. Instead of the old saying “Is there a doctor in the house?” the people of Carter County would ask if there was a squadsmen available.
Ellis remembers one time when he was at a grocery store. He was in the checkout line when a woman was cut by an exploding soft drink bottle. He immediately went to his car and got his first aid kit and began treating the cut. When he finished, he told the woman to go to the emergency room and get stitches. Those in the store, including the manager thanked him for his service.
Rescue operations were also a big part of the squad’s work. Although Watauga Dam had ended the catastrophic floods of the Watauga River, there were still floods on the tributaries. There were also lost hunters and hikers to find and an occasional plane crash on Holston Mountain.
The squad also participated when squads in other counties called for help. The men from Carter County often took part in rescuing people lost in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
These days of few regulations and expectations began to change soon after Ellis became a member. He said a television show called “Emergency” about a Los Angeles rescue team helped change things.
One change was that the state became more involved, requiring the squadsmen to have more training. Soon Ellis and other squadsmen were taking courses in Emergency Medical Technician School. The school was taught by Dr. Ed. Perry at Milligan College.
It was the start of big changes for the rescue squad which will be discussed in the second story, to be published next week.