It is a warm muggy night in Charles Town. The drive eastward could be a bad one if a blinding storm arises. But EMS is EMS, and the appointment has already been set.
The valley is increasingly more cluttered by subdivisions of new matchbox houses built rather too close together. The mountain range is before us. Wherever you go in southern or eastern Jefferson County, you see the bluish mountains marking the divide between Virginia and West Virginia. Only a horrible snow or a dense haze can obscure your constant neighbor. The valley is the valley. Mountains define it. Small radio towers are visible in the distance. We cross a wide bridge over an even wider Shenandoah River.
The road changes into a series of inclines, declines and blind, as well as sharp, curves. The passage on Route 9 over the Blue Ridge Mountains into Virginia has begun. Two earlier visits were made possible by this venerable but hazardous highway. Traffic is heavy coming back from Washington, DC. A sign promises condos next to a hairpin curve: “Mission Ridge can be your home.” At the apex of a hillock, we make a short right.
A brick building with two garages sits under a sign that says Blue Ridge Mountain Vol. Fire Co. #5. A more visible sign disclaims responsibility for damages to one’s property while parked there. The night crew assembles because it is Wednesday—clean-up night. The EMS chief and training chief descend on the building, too. A young NREMT-B graduate has alerted them to the fact that a guy from an emergency medical services magazine is there. Like all people in the area, they are wary of the press. The only way through to them is war stories—the lingua franca of EMS anywhere. Codes, EDPs at 2 a.m., and hapless or senseless extrications are the same everywhere.
Who are they? One of two fire-EMS stations with a fire engine and a nice Ford ambulance. Popular cartoon Tasmanian devils are painted on the ambulances and on the inside wall of the garage. They are on the mountain, eight miles from downtown Charles Town. A rabid cat bit a young child here not 20 hours earlier. The calls are traumas and medical emergencies. The crew members are young—upper 30s or hippie generation. Not so many post-moderns in these uniforms. And what uniforms they are missing. Black with light blue panels and illuminator stripes. Richard Petty would have been impressed. Anyone would be impressed. Turnout gear is turnout gear. But a basic uniform with flair underneath adds style to a scary and daunting sphere of operations.
Rain and wind in West Virginia can be ferocious things. Seventy-mile-an-hour winds are not unknown as part and parcel of spontaneous storms that occur anytime all year round. When actual hurricanes come this far inland, things grow to the level of borderline paralysis. How do you cross the river bridge with high winds and trees falling in your path? How can you call on the nearby Maryland State Police medical helicopter in gale-force and higher winds? The older faces betray a gritty determination, along with other things. It can be a grim detail. The steely eyes indicate an unspoken resolve to go ahead and get it done.
Squad members respond to calls from their homes. Nobody sleeps in. Snow or no snow—the state can plow the roads. They are not against a little ad hoc ice boating if that is the only way to get down the winding curves. The squad is ready to defy nature. Ambulance #51 and the Tasmanian devils fear…very little.
The use of towers on many mountainsides helps combat dead spots. The state inspects the ambulances annually and crews are often cross-trained. Burnout is possible; moving on is also possible. Recruiting enough people to replace the losses is problematical. Élan is palpable. Longtime 20-something members are a bit more rare, since the squad is only eight years old. The future depends on many things. The condos on the hillside behind the building might be one of them.