Above and beyond the call of duty

Published 6:00 pm Saturday, December 14, 2013

WINDSOR – He doesn’t wear a cape or a costume with an ‘S’ on his chest, but Superman and Bertie County Emergency Management Director Mitch Cooper were a good comparison this past week.

Cooper has been universally complemented and praised statewide for his efforts in maintaining the continuity of services for the county’s Emergency Management Service in the wake of First Med shutting down operation in the county and eventually filing Chapter-7 bankruptcy.

Bertie County Emergency Management Director Mitch Cooper

Bertie County Emergency Management Director Mitch Cooper

First Med made history in North Carolina when they became the first privatized emergency management system in North Carolina taking over from the county’s former EMS service. They began 24-hour operations at three station locations (Aulander, Colerain, and Windsor) throughout the county on October 1 on an annual budget of $310,000.

Then this past weekend the ambulance service announced it was closing operations in several states. While at first, Bertie County authorities believed that would not impact them, Cooper’s instincts kept him ahead of the game.

Monday morning county officials learned the ambulance provider had closed down elsewhere, and would do so in Bertie County on Wednesday.

“Time was definitely precious in this moment,” Cooper said during an impromptu interview in his EMS office on Thursday after he had briefed the Bertie County Board of Commissioners on transitioning over to a county-maintained emergency ambulance system.

“The last three days, it’s been kind of a trying time but having the Commissioners able to assemble this team and especially taking on the First Med employees has made this an easier transition than what we could have been faced with,” he added.

The closing of First Med service began first out of state on Friday evening and Saturday morning, but by mid-afternoon, word had spread here.

“I remember it exactly,” Cooper recalls. “On Saturday, I was notified at 2:38 that First Med had filed for bankruptcy, but I was told that our system would not be affected.”

A veteran of disasters, natural and man-made, Cooper’s sixth sense was on full alert; and though nothing had yet become official, he was on guard and prepared to take action.

“When you take a system that size and you start watching the news and paying attention to what’s going on you have to expect that something’s going to happen to yours,” he recounted. “Somebody that’s got 600 trucks (ambulances) on the road it’s hard to believe they were going to leave four untouched.”

Cooper then alerted Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer of what he had learned and the duo began their strategy. First they called for an emergency meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

At 10 a.m. Monday a First Med representative appeared before the board and officially gave the word that operations would cease. While the news caught the Commissioners by complete surprise, Sauer and his EMS Director were already at work on a contingency plan.

“That was a huge, huge endeavor to take on in the middle of the weekend, but the County stepped up to the plate,” Cooper reiterates. “We got our resources in line, we got our objectives laid out, and we knew what we wanted to do and that was to continue seeing to the service.”

Commission Chairman J. Wallace Perry, at the Monday meeting, then declared a County State of Emergency which became effective at noon the same day. It gave Cooper the power to seek State resources and mutual aid with the assistance of the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management.

“My phone’s been pretty much glued to my ear,” he chuckled.

After consulting across the region and the state on resources, Cooper used Monday evening to assemble the 24 full-time and some 30 part-time now ‘former’ First Med employees and assured them that they would be offered work with the county.

“Every employee that was hired in the Bertie EMS system through First Med has been offered a job,” Cooper said. “And every one of them has been very supportive in trying to push forward with this system and keep our citizens covered.”

Though Bertie County still had some 36 hours before First Med would cease operations, the transition had gone so smoothly, it was almost seamless.

“Everybody has accepted, trucks are running, and the schedule has kept the same,” he said.

Thursday, Cooper was back before the Commissioners with an update that included information on the activated rapid response team approach to maintaining the continuity of services for the EMS Paramedic program, purchasing of additional vehicles, a schedule of fees, complete with a billing system that will be operational this coming week, temporary staff positions, and a model based on other rural counties that operate a county-run emergency ambulance system.

“If the citizens notice anything it might be the way the truck looks,” he acknowledged. “We’re going to identify them as Bertie County Emergency Services. The employees will wear a different uniform from now on, but as far as the service we’re going to continue to provide the service we started on Oct. 1 and continue to meet those deadlines and make that 20 minute response time 90 percent of the time.

“That’s ninety seconds from when the wheels will be rolling,” he adds. “We’ll be going out the door and providing the highest level of care we can get to these citizens.”

Cooper’s been at his post for nearly two years and has seen everything from tornadoes to hurricanes to the potential loss of ambulance service. Through it all, he’s given it his full attention and kept it nothing less than professional.

“This has definitely been an experience,” he concludes with a smile. “Whether it’s a man-made disaster or a natural disaster, we’ve definitely endured what we needed to.”