Lump of coal turns to gold

Published 8:34 am Tuesday, December 17, 2013

None of the four local government entities that comprise the Roanoke-Chowan area are wealthy. However, the “riches” they possess are in the county employees placed in their respective positions to serve the citizens of Bertie, Gates, Hertford and Northampton counties.

I’ve had the opportunity to witness, first-hand, how county government operates, what makes them tick, over the past 20 years. I’ve seen good times; I’ve seen bad. But in the end, it’s always the loyalty, the dedication of county staffers to use the limited resources at their disposal and make things work for the betterment of the citizens they serve.

What took place in Bertie County last week is a prime example of the dedication of public servants. The First Med dilemma caught county staff there between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Instead of sheer panic, I saw calm, just like within the eye of a storm…..everything was about to collapse around them, but yet they refused to run for the hills, choosing instead to stand their ground.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear in this case….when First Med announced it was in financial distress and were closing its doors on Wednesday of last week, this is not your typical going-out-of-business scenario. The State of North Carolina requires each of our 100 counties to provide emergency medical service. There are no exceptions to that rule; you can’t plead your case when you cannot answer an emergency call based on the reason that your provider is filing for bankruptcy.

Personally, I caught wind of the pending First Med downfall late in the morning of Saturday, Dec. 7. I was at work when I got a call from the newsroom of WVEC (TV 13). They asked if First Med was still operating in BertieCounty before sharing the news that the company had already shut down two locations in the Hampton Roads area as well as several in Ohio.

What I didn’t know then was that Mitch Cooper, Bertie’s Emergency Management Director, and County Manager Scott Sauer were already on top of this developing story. Their collective instincts kicked into high gear…both knowing that this type of breaking news had all indications of severely impacting their county.

So, instead of waiting for the official news of First Med’s collapse on Monday, Cooper and Sauer got the ball rolling over the weekend. By the time the Bertie Commissioners held an emergency meeting on Monday, a plan was already taking shape… include declaring a State of Emergency, a governmental action that afforded Cooper the power to rally state and local resources in his quest to ensure uninterrupted EMS service in the county.

Armed with an operating budget of $1.2 million (taken from the county’s Fund Balance), Cooper and Sauer put together Bertie EMS. They saved the jobs of former First Med staffers, hiring them as county workers (not to mention saving them from joining the unemployment line at Christmas).

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 week, temporary staff positions, and a model based on other rural counties that operate a county-run emergency ambulance system.

There may be those who will ask why didn’t the county choose to operate their own EMS system to begin with instead of hiring a private company to perform that job? That would have been a fair question to ask last fall when all that came together. Now you move forward with what you have and say thanks to capable leaders who didn’t let you down in the clutch. They transformed a lump of coal into a bar of gold.

Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at or 252-332-7207.        

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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