For EMS responders traveling along the southern route of the annual EMS Memorial Bike Ride, the answer is about 500 miles.
Allen McWhirt, who participated in the ride Saturday, traveled from Asheville, North Carolina, to Johnson City on his bike to honor the memory of Thomas Hampl, an EMS worker who died in a helicopter crash in the line of duty last year.
“I didn’t know him at all,” McWhirt said. “But he was part of the EMS family.”
The EMS Memorial Bike Ride is a weeklong trek held every year to honor EMS providers serving in their local communities. The event also commemorates EMS employees who have died in the line of duty.
On Saturday, Johnson City hosted travelers along the event’s southern route, providing them with food and shelter for the night before they continued on the next leg of their journey Sunday morning. Four riders and six support staff arrived at the Washington County/Johnson City EMS headquarters on Wesley Street at approximately 5:30 p.m.
Members of Washington County/Johnson City EMS, who had pulled several emergency response vehicles out of the garage to salute their arrival, met the participants as they pulled into the agency’s parking lot.
Members of the local agency and participants in the event conducted a memorial ceremony in the front of the building. Capt. Mike Skowronski and Lt. Billy Jack Collins, along with the route coordinators for the trek, Devon Frazier and Matthew O’Rourke, read the names of EMS responders who had died in the previous year. In conjunction with the recitation of each name, one of the participants tolled a small bell.
“These folks are giving their time up to honor someone that they don’t know, to honor on faith that, ‘You know what, this is one of my brothers and sisters in EMS. They did the same job that I did,’ ” said Brad Gerfin, operations director with Washington County/Johnson City EMS. “So to be able to host these folks, to come over and welcome them to our area and feed them and take care of them for a night and send them off, it’s just a huge honor.”
In addition to the trek through the southern U.S., the event is divided into several routes spread across the country, with the southern route spanning from Asheville to Arlington, Virginia.
Frazier and O’Rourke are multi-year veterans of EMS service and managed the logistics of this year’s course. Their local agency — the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad in Blacksburg, Virginia — has been involved in the bike ride since 2006.
“I think to say that I’m honored or privileged is almost an understatement,” Frazier said. “To be able to come out here for people who can’t do it ... for people who have given the ultimate sacrifice doing what I do every day, for me, that just gives me chills thinking about it.”
Four riders and six support staff departed from Asheville early Saturday morning, and four additional riders will join the caravan by Monday.
McWhirt said the bike ride also brings awareness to the fact that there isn’t a permanent memorial for EMS workers in the U.S. There is a mobile memorial, but it doesn’t have an established location.
“We know that these folks would love to have another day and do something that’s unique and special, and that’s what we’re doing,” McWhirt said. “We’re able to do these rides, meet the people in each of these communities, spend some time with other rescue squads. The whole thing is a family.”
Riders will travel throughout the week along the southern route and will meet with riders traveling along the east coast later this week. The group will hold a final memorial ceremony at the end of the ride.