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Clarksville rescue squad celebrates 60 years of service

SoVaNow.com / November 07, 2012
In October 1952, Clarksville was on the verge of becoming a lakefront playground. A few men in the area saw this as a mixed blessing. After all, it had been just one year since a child drowned in the Roanoke River near Clarksville.

“We figured we had to have something, even if it was just for lifesaving,” recalled Burton Buchanan of the beginning of the first EMS squad in Mecklenburg County, known as the Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad. Buchanan was one of the squad’s founding members. Everyone was a volunteer.

In addition to Buchanan, the charter members of Clarksville’s EMS Squad included Lt. Carr from the Virginia State Police, Paul Blevins, who served as the Chaplain, Lee West, Graham Elliott, Pete Sizemore, Benny Fuller, Robert Jr. Griffith, Sam Newton, Jimmy Hite, Harvey Adcock, Waverly Watkins, and Claude Jones.

Buchanan remembers that the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors had appropriated some funding for the purpose, but there was only enough money to establish one lifesaving and rescue squad. At a meeting at the VFW Roanoke River Post 8163, representatives from Clarksville, Chase City and South Hill all clamored for the funds. There was even a suggestion that the squad should be situated in Boydton, since it was the county seat. Finally, one man stood up and asked, “Where is the lake?” Buchanan recalled.

Still, no one could agree on which community should get the money. Frustrated, the contingent from Clarksville told the others: “It didn’t matter what they decided, we were going to form a rescue squad. We left and went back to Clarksville and got to work,” Buchanan remembered.

“We didn’t know anything about running a rescue squad, we just knew it was needed,” Burton said of that first squad. “We had to beg, borrow, and almost steal our equipment. We got it anywhere we could.” Their first ambulance was a second hand station wagon they got from Richmond.

The nearest existing squad was in Lynchburg. Burton says the members went there to “get points on how to form [ours] and also learn what was needed.”

Winnie Blanks, a licensed nurse, remembered of that first squad, “They were about to lose their certification, because they had no training.” She was asked to create the first training course so men could learn basic first aid and lifesaving. Later, members took a first aid class from the Red Cross in Boydton. Still later, they brought in a certified trainer and medical professionals from South Boston.

“Of course now it’s much more complicated,” Burton explained. Nevertheless, the early squad made a difference, especially when you look at the statistics. Buchanan noted, “We [Buggs Island Lake] came in below the government predictions for the number of drownings in those first years.”

Buchanan recalls the first run he made for the squad. Surprisingly, it did not involve the lake. It was to help deliver a baby. “I got there in time to cut the cord.”

The Town of Clarksville was very supportive of its EMS squad, Burton added. “They used to furnish the gas for the ambulances.” Mecklenburg County supported the squad, as well — which Burton suggested is part of the reason “we were the last squad in the county to offer free services. We held out as long as we could.”

Over time, the Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad grew. When Burlington Industries and Russell Stover still existed in the area, the squad often had as many as 40 volunteers. Debbie Osborne, who joined the EMS in 1985 and now serves as the head of the permanent staff, applauds both companies for boosting their volunteer numbers. “They encouraged their employees to volunteer in the community. Even gave them time off to make runs.”

Once those two factories closed, the Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad lost many of its volunteers. Today, it still struggles to staff a squad that makes around 1,100 runs each year. “We are not allowed to refuse transport to anyone,” Osborne explains. That includes people without insurance who use the squad as a taxi service when all they have is a toothache or some other minor ailment — which won’t be treated in the emergency room.

“It’s sad the number of people who use us this way. Even when we tell them the Emergency Room won’t treat them, they still demand transport. It’s frustrating because this takes us out of pocket for a couple hours and has prevented us from helping someone truly in need of our services.

She believes the MCLRS is being pushed into becoming an agency staffed by full-time professionals, but don’t have the funds to sustain a full-time staff. The squad gets some support from Mecklenburg County, but most money comes through voluntary contributions.

Still, Osborne, who came to the area to be a park ranger, said she would not give up her job. She still tears up when asked why she does it. “I never want a child to die in my arms. If I can prevent just one from dying…”

Osborne said she is proud to be a member of the organization that is celebrating is 60th anniversary.

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