Etowah County AL July 1 2015 Deputies with the Etowah County Sheriff's Office and the county's Emergency Management Agency today seized equipment from the Etowah County Rescue Squad, driving off from the squad's headquarters with spotlights, thermal imaging equipment and two trailers.
Three members of the agency also had to turn in their deputies' badges.
It was the latest body blow to the rescue squad, which has been working with law enforcement in the county for more than 50 years. A rescue squad member, Vicky Ryan, died in April during a search for a drowned kayaker on Big Wills Creek. Three other squad members were hospitalized, after two of its boats overturned on the creek.
That incident is currently under investigation by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
But since then, the squad has been notified by several agencies that it is not permitted to operate with them. That includes Gadsden Fire, the Etowah County Fire Association and EMA. Rescue Squad Capt. David Kelton, who has only been in his position for less than a month, said today that the squad is no longer receiving 911 calls.
When a search began earlier this month for a drowning victim in the Coosa near Southside, ALEA called the Cherokee County Rescue Squad to assist in the search rather than Etowah County.
Other entities, such as the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., have informed the squad that it is not allowed to participate in events, and both Gadsden and Rainbow City have denied the squad permits for fundraising roadblocks.
The seizure, Sheriff Todd Entrekin said, involved equipment from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Chief Deputy Michael Barton said once the squad could no longer use the equipment in Etowah County, it had to be reallocated to agencies that could deploy it, due to federal regulations.
Kelton said he was notified on Friday that he had four days to prepare paperwork and turn the equipment over. The trailers were hitched and driven off this afternoon.
"I want to do what's required," Kelton said. "I want to move forward."
Entrekin said he had worked with the rescue squad for all of his 33 years in law enforcement and has been "involved in hundreds of missions," from helping in searches to recovering evidence.
"In its day, it was the best thing in the county," he said. "But times have changed and needs have changed." With volunteer fire departments and more access to equipment and training, he said, the squad is not as needed.
Three years ago, the rescue squad approached the Sheriff's Office about working cooperatively, sharing equipment and training, Entrekin said. This would have made the agency an auxiliary, like the mounted unit or crisis chaplain counseling, he said, meaning the rescue squad would control any money raised for its activities. However, the squad's board of directors decided against this.
The investigation into the Big Wills Creek incident will likely head to a grand jury in September.
Kelton said the rescue squad members, who are volunteers, will continue to undergo training over the next few months. Its remaining equipment can be loaned out to neighboring agencies, he said.
"There's a 50-50 chance we'll get our equipment back," Kelton said. "Since the accident, they've put a hold on our activities, but we're still here. We'll survive and we'll be back. We need the people's support more than ever."
Still, losing the equipment was hard to take, he said.
"My dad was a charter member in 1961," Kelton said. "I was there when they brought the first piece of equipment."