The South Orange Rescue Squad marks five decades of providing emergency medicine and education to the Orange County community
By Hannah McClellan / Photography by John Michael Simpson
When the South Orange Rescue Squad was founded in 1971, emergency medical services as we know them didn’t exist. The 911 system was in its infancy, and in lieu of ambulances, funeral homes dispatched hearses to transport the sick and injured.
The Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department decided to create a better system, relying on volunteers and a donated 1954 Cadillac Meteor hearse retrofitted as an ambulance to transport people to the hospital.
“So they got together, and they founded the South Orange Rescue Squad as a response to this need,” says Fred Stipe, SORS board chairperson.
On June 11, SORS will celebrate 50 years since its founding – five decades of emergency medicine, education and training services to the Orange County community. The organization started with 35 members and a focus on ambulance transport and vehicular extrication and has grown to 100 members across three divisions: emergency medical services (EMS), technical rescue team and the community education programs.
Volunteers include a broad spectrum of students from UNC, new residents and those like Fred who’ve been in the area for decades. Some go on to careers in emergency medicine; most volunteer on top of other full-time jobs or school commitments.
“The most important thing that we talk about now is the fact that we’re still after 50 years all-volunteer, which is very unusual,” Fred says. “At one point, there were a lot of them, but gradually most of them became paid county or municipal squads that were funded by people’s tax money.”
Bill Waddell and Jane Waddell first joined the squad in the early 1990s, where they worked as EMTs and later as paramedics before Orange County disallowed volunteer paramedic services. At the time, Jane was a music teacher and Bill worked in computer software development. Volunteering multiple times a week wasn’t always easy, but it was something they enjoyed and found meaning in, which they say made the effort worth it.
“We decided, well, we could do this together. … We just made it work,” Bill says. “If you’ve got 40 hours a week that you work – goodness, you’ve got another 120 hours to do other stuff.”
Jane adds, “There’s some things you say, ‘Well, if it’s not working, you shouldn’t be doing it.’ But it somehow always seemed to work.”
About five or six years ago, the Waddells “phased out” of volunteering at SORS. Of course, that’s how they put it – they both still volunteer with the community division and teach the organization’s free CPR classes, where they are the course’s leading instructors every year, according to Fred.
Bill says the squad is still a big part of their lives. “South Orange is important to me because of what it’s done across the state and then people inside the community,” he says. “And it’s also helped the people who have served within it and moved people along in their careers and in their lives. But it’s also been a bunch of good people working together.”
Dr. Tom Griggs – who joined the squad as one of the very first EMS volunteers in 1971 along with his wife, Pat Griggs – went on to become the medical director for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol for many years. Still in Orange County, he also praises the squad members and keeps in touch with some. “Some of my favorite people are those folks – even now,” Tom says. Recently, two doctors, both SORS alumni, helped remove a basal cell carcinoma from Pat’s nose.
A lot has changed in the 50 years SORS has provided volunteer services. When the squad was first established, two locations were constructed, with Station 1 in Hillsborough and Station 2 on Roberson Street in Carrboro. In 2004, the Hillsborough station split away from SORS, who now just retain the Roberson Street location.
While the group always worked in partnership with the county, the specifics of that relationship have also changed over the years. Currently, SORS has one ambulance integrated with the county’s 911 system every day, with additional ambulances and volunteers on call when county services are overloaded.
The group still offers swiftwater rescue services – for which it’s received two national awards for excellence – and completes other rescue missions statewide when needed, like in the case of hurricanes or other natural disasters. And of course, SORS continues to strive to help the people it was first created to serve: its neighbors.
“I have a very deeply personal reason for supporting the rescue squad,” Fred says. In the ’80s and ’90s, his father experienced multiple medical emergencies. In each of those emergencies, members of SORS were the people who responded.
“I have a deep personal debt of gratitude to them because of the fact that they did such a great job of taking care of my father – and they also took care of my mother one time later on in her life,” he says.
Fred first signed on as a community member in the late 1990s. Though he wasn’t an EMT and didn’t “climb ropes or ride on ambulances,” Fred says he found a place to support SORS through fundraising and helping with tasks like cleaning the station or ambulances.
“It’s a family – it’s just like any other close-knit group of people who have the same vision and the same value set,” Fred says of SORS. “It’s meant an awful lot to me. This 50-year anniversary for us is a big deal, and we’re thinking about where we want to be in another 50 years.”