NR EMS celebrates 50 years; it all began with the 'Dirty Dozen'
On Thursday, Feb. 8, the New Richmond Area Ambulance Service will enter its fifth decade of service after making its first run 50 years ago in 1968.
"It is just unreal to think that it is still around now, and still community owned," said Chuck Mehls, who was instrumental in the creation of the ambulance service, He served as operations chief for many years.
To celebrate, the NRAAS will host a reunion/open house for current and past first responders, EMTs and anyone associated with NRAAS through the years 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18.
According to Mehls, the conversation to start the NRAA started in the last part of 1967. At the time, the ambulance service was run by two morticians in New Richmond, and the pair informed the mayor and city council they were terminating service.
"My wife and I lived out of town and (Dr. Richard Davis, who was mayor at the time) came out there one evening ... and I asked him if he was making a house call. He told me that we had a problem and explained what was happening," Mehls, who spent 37 years with the ambulance service, said. "Davis said we have to come up with a plan, personnel and an ambulance. I taught first aid, advanced first aid and trauma care at the time, so Doc Davis asked me if I could do the training if we could get the personnel. We rounded up a bunch of ex-military medics, which came out to 12 people. We called ourselves the 'Dirty Dozen.'"
After that, Mehls put together a schedule for the new team. Around that time, the government was starting to require training and special equipment for ambulances. In addition to organizing the service, Mehls and fellow "Dirty Dozen" member Merlin Green spent three weeks in Madison taking an emergency medical technician course.
The first vehicle the ambulance service used was leased from the Twin Cities and needed to be fully outfitted with federally mandated equipment and supplies before it could be used. The required supplies and equipment came to around $1,000, Mehls said, which was a lot of money in 1968.
"The conversation about how we would get the funds for the equipment and supplies we needed for the ambulance went on (between the members of the ambulance committee) for awhile, but eventually Doc got up and slapped the table and he pulled out his checkbook and wrote out a check," Mehls said. "He told us to go and get whatever we needed on the list, but we needed to pay him back as soon as possible."
The service picked up its second vehicle later on in 1968, which needed to be picked up in De Pere, Wis. after another city canceled its order after delivery.
"When I heard that the vehicle was available, but I considered having someone call over there and tell them to put barbed wire over it and a machine gun pit in the corner since I think we want that thing," Mehls said. "That was the start of us getting some decent equipment and having a decent vehicle. We kept the other one as backup until we stopped the lease on it when Bernard's donated a station wagon as a backup."
The ambulance service borrowed a stall at the old fire station for many years and eventually built an addition on to the side of the fire station for the ambulance service to have more space. The service eventually transitioned to its current location at 344 S. Arch Ave. in January 2012.
"In the beginning, we would go to a basketball game and tell the ticket taker to let us know if they got a call from the phone operator for us. They would call and tell us they need an ambulance at such and such an address. We would ask them what the situation was and they would tell us that they just needed an ambulance," Mehls said. "We always wanted to make sure we got a little bit more information than that to make sure we knew what we were getting into."
The service is currently a paramedic level service that has advanced life support with 36 people on staff. Matt Melby has been the director since 2000.
In total, the newly organized NRAAS made 206 runs in 1968. Currently, the ambulance service has a coverage area of 220 square miles and a call volume of 1,500 calls a year.
When the NRAAS started in 1968, the cost for a new vehicle was $18,000. Now, according to Melby, the vehicles can cost upwards of $200,000. The NRAAS currently has four ambulances, including three primary vehicles, with a fourth on standby as backup.
Mehls' full-time job was being a high school teacher, where he taught a health careers class. Many of the students who took his class ended up working for the NRAAS, including Melby, who took Mehls' final class in 1993.
"A lot of New Richmond EMTs came through the health careers class at the high school," said Craig Berquist, who has been with the NRAAS since 1996. "A lot of younger people were recruited through that class. The position has become more of a job than it had been in the past or as it was as a volunteer thing for many years. A lot of that has to do with the specialization and training it requires. I think the average career for an EMT is eight years."