An ambulance pulled out of North Mecklenburg Rescue Squad’s Huntersville headquarters on NC 115, siren wailing. It was one of the squad's final calls before the end of an era, as the squad prepared to close its doors Friday after 58 years.
North Meck Rescue is the last unit of its kind in the area, and the shutdown comes amid population growth and changes in the way local emergency services are provided.
It's closing because the town board recently withdrew about $350,000 in annual funding - most of the unit's budget.
“Oh, it's a sad day,” Chief John Stroup said Friday morning, as he stood next to an ambulance. "We've been here for 58 years helping the people in the community. A lot of our members are going to be sad to see it go. We're not closing necessarily because we want to.”
Huntersville officials have shifted spending to the fire department, which is adding staff and building a fourth fire station, on the west side of town. That cuts the nonprofit North Meck Rescue out of the equation.
For nearly six decades, its EMTs responded to heart attacks, auto wrecks and other accidents. It was born out of a community need.
“Back in 1959, there wasn't really anybody that provided any kind of rescue or medical type service to anyone in the community. The fire departments at that time just put out fires,” Stroup said.
But that's changed, as local volunteer fire departments have professionalized and expanded - becoming medical first responders. In fact, medical calls now vastly outnumber fires at most departments.
The squad once served an area from the Charlotte line north to Davidson. In recent years, it has mainly responded in Huntersville, as contracts with other area towns ended.
“I guess we've kind of known this day was coming … but we wish we could've been able to work something out with the fire department and the town. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case,” Stroup said.
Still, North Meck Rescue has filled a need over the years, as the area's population has boomed. In its early years, the unit counted annual call volume in the hundreds. Last year was its busiest year ever - about 2,800 calls. This year, it was on track to be even higher.
North Meck Rescue at times has had as many as 50 staff. Now it's about 35 – a mix of volunteers and paid part-timers. Current and former members gathered at the station on the last day for food, stories and farewells.
“You know, we’re glad we were here to help over that 58 years, and the people that we’ve saved, the people that we’ve helped, that’s why we were here."
Now, they’ll sell the ambulances and other equipment and put the money into a scholarship fund for students interested in emergency services.