Monongalia County EMS rural response times a concern
By Emilee Kessler
The Monongalia County ambulance, stationed at the Volunteer Fire Department Garage in Blacksville, West Virginia, is the unit stationed at the beginning of the Western End zone of the County. It is the most remote station from Morgantown. Photo by Emilee Kessler
During her first week living in Wadestown, West Virginia, Lynn Keener saw a car drop off the shoulder of the road in front of her, hit a hole and blow a tire. The car ended its roll in a ditch. The driver asked her to call for help, but because she had no mobile phone service where they were, she had to drive to her home to call 9-1-1 for an ambulance. “I went home and called for him, and it took an hour,” Keener said.
She said it was the first experience that made her think, “Wow, you don’t have services out here.” Keener, who pastors three churches and works with West Virginia Caring, a hospice organization, has had similar experiences since.
For Monongalia County EMS, the county is divided into zones, and Wadestown, where Keener lives, is situated in the zone called “the Western End,” close to the borders of two other counties and a 40 minute drive from Morgantown, the location of the county’s hospitals. Monongalia County has 12 ambulances to cover 366 square miles, and the majority of them are stationed in Morgantown close to the county’s largest population center. As a result, residents of some of the outer regions of Monongalia County can find emergency response times to be relatively long and unpredictable.
In good weather conditions, the travel time for Monongalia County EMS from Morgantown to Blacksville, the town that marks the beginning of the Western End zone, is 20 minutes. Other rural communities in Monongalia County, like Wadestown, are a longer commute, about 40 minutes to the hospitals in Morgantown – one way. All of these travel times become greater with poor weather conditions.
“We live so far out from Morgantown that it takes 20 minutes or more for help to get here when it’s needed.” -Sandra Throckmorton, Blacksville resident
Sandra Throckmorton is a longtime resident of Blacksville and the branch manager at Clay-Battelle Public Library. Throckmorton identified the lack of ambulance service as one of the community’s larger problems. “We live so far out from Morgantown that it takes 20 minutes or more for help to get here when it’s needed,” Throckmorton said. Throckmorton is a senior citizen like a large number of the community’s population.
The Blacksville community used to be home to a station full of volunteer EMS staff. The station was funded by the Appalachian Regional Development Commission grant and opened in 1975. It was closed down in 1995 due to the lack of volunteers and a low volume of calls. After this closure, the staff relocated to the main headquarters in Morgantown.
“Back when I was growing up, we did have an actual ambulance station,” said Brian Kelly, the mayor of Blacksville. “Over the years, there was a lot of bickering, and it just fell apart. The fire department remained, but the ambulance service went away.” Kelly said about two years ago, the County stationed an ambulance in the Blacksville community.
The fire chief Kevin Wilson said, the Blacksville Volunteer Fire Department designates space in its garage for an ambulance. There are bunks, desks, and a day room to give EMS workers a space to be comfortable. The Blacksville ambulance post is the most remote EMS outpost from Morgantown in the county. But when calls are heavy in Morgantown, the ambulance can be called back to town.
Earl Hixenbaugh, the president of the senior center, was one of the volunteers of the original EMS station. He worked as an ambulance driver for around 20 years. Hixenbaugh was an EMT until the station was closed in Blacksville. He transported people for various injuries ranging from broken legs to heart attacks.
He remembers having 15 or 20 people working in the station. Hixenbaugh said whenever the official station was in town, there was always someone readily available. Today, he usually doesn’t see people stationed there throughout the night, so if their services are needed, an ambulance has to come from Morgantown.
Monongalia County Captain of Support Services, John Bandzul said Blacksville has an ambulance, medic, and an EMT stationed in the center of town 24/7, 7 days a week. The ambulance only leaves the station if they are needed to assist or respond to a call in Morgantown. But the county gets about 60 calls daily and Blacksville and the rest of the Western End zone only accounts for about 1.6 calls per day.
Josh Silvers is an EMT for Monongalia County EMS and has been stationed in Blacksville for about a month with Brian Arnold, who is an EMT in training. Silvers said having two members on call and the ambulance back in the community has helped.
He said whenever the ambulance was not stationed in Blacksville, the protocol was,
“If anything bad is happening, you need to get your family into the car and drive, and we will meet you.” He said, today, their response time, if they are in the area, is reduced greatly.
Even with the ambulance posted in Blacksville, there are challenges. In November of 2021, Pam Shriver, a Wadestown resident, needed an ambulance. Shriver’s husband has diabetes, and his blood sugar levels dropped to an alarming level. As she tried to keep him conscious and help him to bed and stabilize his levels, she dislocated her shoulder and tore her bicep muscle. She said the ambulance arrived 50 minutes after she called, and the EMS responder told her the ambulance was coming from Morgantown. Shriver was able to get her husband to drink a Coke in order to stabilize him while they waited.
Sometimes response times are slow because of the volume of calls. “When it rains it pours, but there are droughts in between,” Silvers said. “You might go a day with one, and then the very next day you’ll have seven.”
On days when the call volume in Morgantown is highest, Silver said they sometimes station the ambulance in Cassville, about halfway between Morgantown and Blacksville.
The town of Blacksville doesn’t have a hospital, but is home to a HealthWorks and the Clay-Battelle Community Health Center. Megan Mcmillen, who is a certified medical assistant at the Health Center, said that this facility offers physicians assistants, behavioral services, and a dental team. The centers are primarily helpful in non-emergency situations. Most of the people who go to this facility live in Blacksville or on the outskirts of the county.
Having these centers is still helpful to the community members who aren’t able to drive far or if they need basic services. The health center has no direct affiliation with Monongalia General or Ruby Memorial Hospitals in Morgantown. Mcmillen doesn’t believe there is a large problem with the lack of EMS in the area. She said that she sees the lack of serious medical providers only being an issue when elderly people can’t drive themselves.
Keener’s mother is a senior citizen, who lived in Westover for more than 50 years, and no longer drives. About 3 years ago, Keener moved her mother and herself into a house in Wadestown. She said, despite the distances from emergency services, the pros of living in the rural areas of the county outweigh the cons.
“My mom lived in the same house for over 50 years, and all of her neighbors had died off. It had gotten to the point where no one would even wave to her anymore. I came out here, and I had people show up with brownies the next day saying, ‘Oh, we’re so glad you’re here.’”
The appeal of strong community and the landscape are two things that keep people living further out from city services.
“I respect that they are out there, and trying to provide a rural service for them is a priority of Mon EMS,” Bandzul said. “I think it’s the freedom of being by yourself and being independent, . . . even if you have serious medical conditions, especially if that is the family farm, and it’s been in the family for 200 years or so. I can understand why you would keep it.”
Based on the information I learned in my initial research about Blacksville and western Monongalia County, I assumed it would be like any other small, quiet town, but it is much more than that. Since Blacksville doesn’t get reported on often, I was nervous to ask people about what mattered to them in their town. Even though it’s not a daunting question, I know how nerve racking it is to be approached by a stranger. It was hard to find people to open up to me and trust me. A question I got asked a lot by residents is “Why?” Why do I care to learn about their small town?