Then and Now: Emergency Services in Johnson City

Johnson City Press • Dec 2, 2019 at 10:13 AM

While today’s array of emergency services provide protection for Johnson City citizens and visitors, 150 years ago the available resources looked a whole lot different.

Wagons to transport someone to a doctor, bucket brigades to put out fires and even outlaws sometimes served as law enforcement. Today, thankfully, citizens don’t have to depend on the rustic emergency services of years past.

Johnson City Police

Resident historian Sgt. Mike Adams has tons of information on law enforcement stretching back to the early 1900s. Some who served as chief of police weren’t always the crime-free upstanding men who have served in recent history.

“I’ve compiled a list of every chief in Johnson City who I could find,” Adams said. That list stretchers back to

He has researched the police department history for a few years now, but a recent malware that swept through city computers caused him to lose some that was not stored on a separate disk. 

In the earliest years, many chiefs served multiple times, and without a way to check a man’s credentials, one was a prison escapee from Texas serving time for murder.

“It really was like the wild West,” Adams said. Fights, shootings, robberies are documented through numerous newspaper articles Adams found during his research. A crime wave of robberies in 1928 went unsolved because there were only five officers to cover the town of 30,000 residents. One woman wrote a scathing letter to the editor admonishing the police department for being more concerned with arresting “pint peddlers,” instead of investigating the robberies.

As the years passed by, however, the police department grew in size and in ability to solve crimes. Today, with more than 100 officers the police department has some of the most up to date technology in hand to do their jobs.

Johnson City Fire

Up until 1890, fighting a fire in Johnson City was met with chaos, according to history gathered by Firefighter Avery Knapp. When Harry Gump moved to town to open a men’s clothing store with his brother, M.I. Gump, it was a matter of days before a fire broke out in town. The historical account Knapp found said the “townspeople tried to fight it in the usual chaotic manner,” although that chaotic manner was not described.

Gump was from a town in Colorado that used a bucket brigade, which he introduced to Johnson City. That method of fighting a fire proved more successful for the years it was used. Soon, however, the brigade was replaced by a hose reel cart “pulled by the youngest, huskiest members of the department.”

In the early 1900s, the department bought two large work horses, Frank and Charlie, to pull a wagon loaded with a water tank, the hose reel and the firefighters. The horses had to be specially trained as fire horses.

The first recorded fire chief, whose name wasn’t in the book, was hired in 1902 and paid $30 per month. The man hired to drive the water wagon was paid $26 per month and live rent free above Frank and Charlie’s stables. The town purchased its first motorized fire truck in 1915, and the horse drawn wagon was retired.

Today, the fire department has 125 sworn personnel and nine stations equipped with nine engines and three ladder trucks strategically staged among those stations. Ladder trucks have two firefighters and engines carry three firefighters.

Washington County/Johnson City EMS 

The Early Years: The First Chartered Tennessee Rescue Squad

In the early years of pre-hospital emergency care, Rescue Squads provided a crucial role in the ground breaking of what would later be referred to as EMS (Emergency Medical Services). The Rescue Squads would respond to vehicle accident scenes & provide basic first-aid care to sick or injured patients while Ambulance Companies & Funeral Home Transport Services would transport the patients to area hospitals without the benefit of advanced medical training. The first chartered Rescue Squad in the state of Tennessee was the Johnson City Rescue Squad chartered on the 25th of August in 1949.

The 1960’s: The Beginning of Tennessee Emergency Medical Services

The history of modern EMS (Emergency Medical Services) in Tennessee started in 1967. That year the Tennessee Medical Association formed a committee on Emergency Medical Services. The following year in 1968 Governor Buford Ellington convened an advisory committee to survey all Tennessee ambulance & medical facilities across the state. After several years of planning, the committee signed the EMS Act creating the EMS Division in the Department of Public Health & formed the TN State EMS Advisory Council. The council consisting of thirteen members to advise the EMS Division on program development & regulations. The first order of business was to implement EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) training throughout the state.

The 1970’s: The Formation of the Johnson City Ambulance Authority

The 1970’s brought on further changes. Shortly after the first graduates & state certified EMT’s began treating & transporting patients at a BLS (Basic Life Support) level, the state signed the EMS Act of 1973 authorized ALS (Advanced Life Support) training to begin. This Act utilized the term EMT-Advanced to define the role of a Paramedic. The start of this modern EMS system made its way into Washington County & was formed in 1971 under the name The Ambulance Authority. The Ambulance Authority was based out of the former Memorial Hospital located on West Fairview Ave. in Downtown Johnson City. The Authority operated only 2 Ambulances with 4 EMT’s that responded to emergency calls throughout all of Washington County from a single station location. All emergency calls received came through via individual phone numbers assigned to EMS, Fire & Police departments. The Ambulance Authority operated & responded at this capacity for several years prior to the adaptation of the current 9-1-1 systems that we are accustomed today. The First group of Washington County Paramedics attended & graduated Paramedic training in 1979. These new Paramedics were now able to provide groundbreaking advanced pre-hospital emergency care. This training allowed EMS under a physician orders to start IV fluids, monitor EKG rhythms, provide defibrillation to unstable heart arrhythmias, administer oxygen & life saving medications to all types traumatic & medical emergencies. The first recorded “Save” (Return of heart function) in Washington County was performed from the Ambulance Authority Paramedics at a beauty shop in downtown Johnson City in 1979. This was new & exciting territory in pre-hospital emergency care, but we would soon find out that this was just the beging of great the advancements that EMS would provide to the people our communities.

The 1980’s: The Uniting of Washington County / Johnson City EMS

The Ambulance Authority & the Johnson City Rescue Squad banned together & united under a new cohesive unit. This progressive care partnership was to be known as WC/JC EMS (Washington County / Johnson City EMS) & was headed by Director John Charlton. With this newfound identity EMS started to branch out with EMS stations throughout Washington County to better respond & serve the emergency needs of the community. EMS also moved its base of operations & formed a HQ (Head Quarters) on East Main St. in downtown Johnson City & began staffing now a total of 4 Ambulances doubling the amount of response vehicles from a decade earlier with advanced Paramedic providers on all Ambulances. Johnson City now had Ambulances stationed in the north & south areas of the city & the county districts would now benefited from the addition of Ambulance stationed in the Telford on Hwy 11-E & in Gray on Roscoe Fitz Rd. to better serve those communities with a profound reduction in response times. The 1980’s again showed EMS improving the progress with advancing the knowledge of the Paramedics with new classes & educational training. They were now certified in & able to provide ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support), PALS (Pediatric Advanced Life Support) & Advanced BTLS (Advanced- Basic Trauma Life Support) on a daily basis. This became the standards of care that would be the basic foundation for advancing the knowledge base of the Paramedics as well as keeping them informed & up to date on all the latest changes in emergency care.

The 1990’s: The Merging of S&S Ambulance & County Rescue Squads into WC/JC EMS

While WC/JC EMS was the primary provider of emergency treatment & transport throughout Washington County a private company titled S&S Ambulance headed by Sherrill Nelson a former Director of the Ambulance Authority also provided additional non-emergency / convalescent Ambulance services. As part of the process for acquiring a secure exclusive contract as the sole provider of EMS within Washington County, WC/JC EMS expanded our agency with the purchase of S&S Ambulance. This made a huge impact on the overall ability for EMS to provide enhanced emergent & non-emergent transport & coverage to all of the citizens of Washington County. Following suit was the merging of the county Rescue Squads. WC/JC EMS now was primed to become the elite EMS agency in the region. This allowed EMS to control the Ambulance & Rescue Divisions with a uniformed consistency in training, equipment, supplies, vehicles & personnel. The additional acquisitions now provided EMS/Rescue services to the towns & communities of Jonesborough, Limestone, South Central & Lamar. The Rescue Technicians of WC/JC EMS bring with them a vast array of technical skills. The RT’s are training in Advanced Vehicle Extrication, Swift Water Rescue, Dive Rescue / Recovery, Rope Rescue, Confined Space Rescue as well as perform a vast variety of Search & Rescue operations. These trained & skilled EMS & volunteer individuals provide a great service to the county & are the backbone of a well-trained & prepared service. The volunteer aspect of EMS is now restructured under the banner of Washington County Rescue Services.

The 2000’s: Further Expansion & Advancements in Technology

With the dawning of a new millennium WC/JC EMS continued to strive towards the advancements in technology & expansion of additional services. This new era was now under the leadership & direction of Director Allen Taylor who has been with EMS since the formation of the Ambulance Authority in the 1970’s & has grown along with as well as helped guide WC/JC EMS into the highly skilled & progressive EMS agency that leads the region in Emergency Medical care. This new decade demanded many challenges & changes for EMS. Now with the ability to send 12 lead EKG’s from the scene or Ambulance via FAX to the receiving emergency room, EMS is able to notify the hospitals of an incoming patient experiencing an acute STEMI (Heart Attack) with an expedious time in diagnosis to better aid in the treatment & prevent further cardiac muscle damage. EMS now delves into world of computer-based documentation. All Ambulance PCR (Patient Care Reports) are now performed on touch-screen Toughbook laptops. This keeps all documentation uniform & paperless to better aid in the patients medical charting & privacy. WC/JC EMS was asked to take part in several studies & projects throughout this decade. One study partnered WC/JC EMS with JCMC (Johnson City Medical Center) studying the benefits & effects of synthetic oxygen carrying blood substitute titled Polyheme. ETSU School of Medicine had EMS take part in a cCPR (Cough CPR) study to aid in an alternative non-invasive treatment for Supraventricular Tachycardia (Rapid Heart Rate) patients. In both circumstances EMS provided valued information in regards to the pros & cons of these studies. With the growth in population & increase in emergency call volumes. WC/JC EMS added to its Ambulance fleet the addition of a “Power Truck”. This unit is staffed from the hours of 7pm to 7am & is not tied down to specific response zone. It aids in the quick response times after hours & provides an additional Ambulance coverage during the peak evening & early morning hours. EMS is honored to have the privilege of expanding our specialty teams in providing honor guard support for dedications, ceremonial services & funeral detail. The WC/JC EMS Honor Guard became the first organized EMS Honor Guard in the State of Tennessee in 2000. WC/JC EMS is also tasked with providing specially trained Paramedics that have completed advanced tactical & medical training & are attached to the Johnson City Police & Washington County Sheriffs SWAT teams as Tactical-Paramedics. These Medics are able to support & treat the law enforcement agencies in a hostile environment as well as provide a medical threat consciousness to the overall mission. Special events also provide a high priority & unique set of equipment. EMS staffs specially designed patient transport vehicles known as “Mini-Meds”. These vehicles are small four-wheel-drive apparatus that can operate in congested & crowded gatherings as well as diverse environments. Theses Mini-Meds have been utilized for medical coverage at county special events i.e. Freedom Hall Fireworks, Blueplum Festival in Johnson City & Jonesborough Days, Story Telling Festival & Fireworks in Jonesborough including sporting events & parades.

2010’s: The Current State of EMS

At current date, WC/JC EMS now provides emergency medical & rescue services to all communities in Washington County with stations / unit assignments totaling 9 primary ALS Ambulances, 8 Rescue Units, 3 ALS Convalescent Ambulances & 5 BLS Convalescent Ambulances located throughout the County in the communities of Johnson City, Jonesborough, Gray, Fall Branch, Sulpher Springs, Limestone, Lamar & South Central. EMS also operates its own dispatch center for convalescent operations. This dispatch center receives & dispatches non-emergent calls that are not handled through Washington County 9-1-1. As our communities grow & expand so will the training & operations of WC/JC EMS. We are proud to be a leader in EMS & are pleased to serve the citizens & visitors to all of Washington County. WC/JC EMS has experienced tremendous growth during its history. This has strengthened our response capabilities by increasing the number of available emergency units & decreasing response times. We are proud to be able to administer the most critical public safety service & pledge to give prompt, courteous & professional care to our citizens.

2020’s: The Future of EMS

WC/JC EMS is always striving towards excellence in Pre-Hospital care. Joint Convalescent Dispatch Center in partnership with Sullivan County EMS to better aid our region in non-emergent Ambulance transports. We’re looking into the formation of Community Paramedicine to aid in facilitating patient needs at an in home setting allowing the patient to remain at home & saving them from unneeded emergency room visits. The implementation of a Critical Care Ambulance that will facilitate intensive care patients from hospital to hospital transports that require invasive monitoring, ventilators along with multiple intravenous medication pumps. We will be integrating mechanical CPR devises freeing up hands to provide additional advanced life support care & maintaining consistency through out resuscitation efforts. WC/JC EMS proudly serving with Pride-Compassion-Courage from the past, present & into the future...