With an agency such as ours, with the many years of service we have logged, it's no surprise that the Covington Volunteer Rescue Squad has a rich, abundant history.
As the third-oldest rescue squad in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and one of the last remaining all-volunteer rescue squads in the commonwealth, both past and present members have a reason to be proud of where we've been, where we are today and where we hope to go in the future.
To many, the rich history of the Covington Volunteer Rescue Squad, the oldest rescue squad in the Alleghany Highlands, and the third oldest in the State of Virginia, remains relatively unknown.
Credit for the rescue squad goes hands down to Fred C. Jesser. Born in Philadelphia, PA., Jesser and his family moved to Covington in February 1900, where he opened the Covington Bakery and Confectionery Company.He was also employed by the town of Covington at the town’s water filtration plant.
In November 1901, Jesser, along with several other men, met at the Alleghany County Courthouse to organize the Covington Fire Company.
The Company elected the first chief; Jesser became a statewide icon in the fire services becoming president of the Virginia Fireman’s Association on August 26, 1914, and again on August 25, 1926. He also served the state fireman’s association as treasurer and vice-president over a 20 year period.
Almost from its organization, the Covington Volunteer Fire Department received calls from those in need in other misfortunes in the community. The department aided in rescuing flood victims, in dragging the river for drowning persons and formed search parties to look for people lost in the mountains.
Annually, Jesser attended the National Fire Chief’s Convention, traveling all over the country. Following one of these conventions, Jesser introduced another facet of public safety to the citizens of Covington. The concept of a volunteer Chief Fred C. Jesser rescue squad came following the creation of the nation's first crew - the Roanoke Life Saving Crew - in 1929.
After returning from the National Fire Chief’s Convention in Los Angeles, CA., Jesser presented to his fellow fire department members the idea of a volunteer first aid crew, an idea introduced only four years earlier with the Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew, the first in America.
At the September 1932 meeting of the Covington Fire Department, the following firemen were named charter members of the new first aid crew: Lloyd Steele, Captain; John Knighton, Otho Knighton, Howard Fridley, Ernest Bosserman Sr., Eddie Jones, Clyde Overholt, J.C. Myers, Ralph Brown, T. Gray Keirn, John W. Hughes, Reginald K. Wolfe, C.C. King and Grover Byers.
Standard and Advanced First Aid courses began later that year and were taught by Dr. William J. Ellis, who continued to serve as the squad’s medical advisor during various tenures until June 30, 1996.
Six of the 14 that took Dr. Ellis' initial standard and advanced first aid classes went on to complete the instructor's standard and advanced first aid courses.
Later, Gladys Ryder Griffith, grandmother to current firefighter and squad member Roy Markham, helped teach first aid classes to members and to students of Covington High School. She was cited for her outstanding contribution to the squad and its community.
Early medical classes consisted of 34 hours of classroom instruction with four hours of preparedness for atomic damage.
Upon completion of the first aid training in 1933, the crew was officially organized and the town purchased additional materials to complement minor equipment already on hand when the crew was organized. A utility truck belonging to the fire department was converted into a unit to carry the crew’s equipment.
Soon, it was realized that the community needed an ambulance service and after a six-week fund drive by the crew, $3,100 was raised to purchase a 1934 Buick ambulance. The ambulance was described in the November 22,1933, edition of the Covington Virginian News paper: “The fine $3,800 ambulance to be used by the first aid squad of the Covington Fire Department has arrived and is ready for inspection as well as service. The ambulance is indeed a handsome vehicle, the color of the body being Bangor green while the fenders and top are Colorado tan. Equipment includes Bomgardner cot, side rails and foot rest, larger siren, two attendant seats, medicine cabinets,rescue equipment, axe, wrecking bar, saw, etc., one suspended stretcher, splints, heater, spotlight, electric fan, and red driving lights.”
On February 12, 1935, the Covington Fire Department First Aid and Life Saving Crew became a charter member of the Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads and assisted in the organization of the association. The crew was also a charter member of the International Rescue and First Aid Association, which organized in Atlantic City, New Jersey in September 1948.
From 1933 until 1949, the first aid crew rendered both emergency and non-emergency ambulance service to the area. In 1949, it was decided to turn the non-emergency ambulance service over to the Loving Funeral and Ambulance Service and the first aid crew turned its attention solely to emergencies. Today, several agencies provide non-emergency ambulance service to the residents of the Alleghany Highlands.
At that time, the 1934 Buick ambulance was replaced with a 1949 Oldsmobile crew car and a 1948 panel truck, complete with all modern equipment.
Also, from 1933 until 1938, the Covington First Aid and Life Saving Crew was the only volunteer unit in the highlands. Westvaco’s Rescue Squad was organized in 1938 but initially did not serve areas outside the mill property. It wasn’t until the Clifton Forge Rescue Squad was organized in 1945 that Covington had assistance in covering the broad service area of the Highlands.
By 1967, when the crew celebrated it 35th anniversary, an average of 500 calls were received each year and an average of 2,500 man-hours was spent serving on these calls.
By the early 1980’s, the crew was answering over 1,100 calls, traveling over 19,000 miles and devoting over 4,500 man-hours to emergency calls each year.
Today, the squad receives over 1,200 calls for service each year. The squad also devotes over 6,266 personnel hours annually serving the community.
Adequate training is required to respond to the huge volume of calls received each year.
The first Emergency Medical Technician class was held in 1974 and several of the squad’s members became certified through those classes. Shock Trauma classes were first taught in 1978 and in 1982 the squad had four members become certified through the new Cardiac Technician classes.
When the crew was founded in 1933, it was stipulated that all members had to also be members of the fire department as well. In an effort to build it’s membership, and due to continuously strenuous life saving and rescue training requirements, the first aid crew voted to split from the fire department in 1981. Then-Fire Chief Jerry Burks, a former squad captain in his own right, helped the crew set up by-laws and policies to ensure a smooth transition when the squad and fire department separated their charters. Captain Harrison Scott was at the helm of the Covington Fire Department Life Saving Crew when it split from the fire department.
Following the split that December, for the first time in its history, men and women could join the first aid crew without having to also become a member of the fire department.
The crew finalized its separation from the fire department on May 3, 1985, when the Covington Fire Department and First Aid Lifesaving Crew officially became The Covington Rescue Squad.
The Squad continues to share quarters with the fire department at Station 1, located on Hawthorne Street and Station 2, located on Edgemont Street.
Today, Tim Dick, who joined the squad in 1990, serves as captain of the Covington Volunteer Rescue Squad.He has been captain since January 2005.
Milestones of firsts in the Covington Volunteer Rescue Squad.
- The first Emergency Medical Technician class was held in 1974
- Shock Trauma classes were first taught in 1978.
- In 1982 Cardiac Technician classes got off the ground with the first class ever.
- The first person to take advantage of not having to be a firefighter in order to serve in the Covington Rescue Squad was Richard Crowder who joined the crew on January 14, 1982. He remained with the crew for 12 years and served as captain from 1990 until 1993.
- The first women elected officers in the crew were Sharon Crookshanks and Winifred McCallister, who were elected corresponding and chaplain, respectively, in 1984.
- In February, 1982, Teresa Wilhelm became the first woman to submit an application for membership. Although she was rejected on her first attempt, she reapplied and, in April 1982, she was accepted into the ranks of the crew as the third women member. She was also elected the first women President and the first female Captain in 1999.
- Teresa Wilhelm and Brenda Wilcher became the first two women in the squad to become cardiac technicians.
- The crew’s first black captain was John Hudson, who joined the crew in 1977 and served as captain from 1996 through 1997.
- In 1996, the squad changed its by-laws, allowing a new classification of the member – The Associate Member.
- In May 1996, Susan Robinson became the first person accepted into the squad as an associate member.
- In 2001, the squad changed its by-laws, allowing a classification of the member – The Junior Associate Member. Neil Horn became the first Junior Associate Member in March 2001.