Ambulance Service Has a Storied History in South County

old ambulance
The Rupert Funeral Home in Vicksburg with its horse and carriage on the way to the cemetery.

By Sue Moore

Marilyn Durham, previous owner of Life Story Funeral Home, previously Rupert Durham in Vicksburg, tells about her experiences growing up in the family funeral business during the 1930s and 40s. Her father, Duane Rupert, was often called upon to make ambulance runs in his hearse, not knowing if the patient was alive.

The state of Michigan began to step into this vital health care service with regulations in the 1950s. They required trained volunteers in medical care to ride along in a real ambulance, driven by a certified medical person.

That served as the rallying cry to form a volunteer ambulance service in the Vicksburg area during the 1960s, with the service being staffed around the clock. The ambulance was headquarted in what is now the Cultural Arts Center at 200 S. Main. Staff quarters were above Rawlinson’s Appliances which at that time housed the village offices downstairs.

The state stepped in several more times, requiring upgrading in training, CPR, and actual response times to arrive at the scene. The use of 911 to dispatch these ambulance services was instituted in the late 1970s.

Finally, after Anna Brown and her daughter Nancy Decker had served for many years as volunteers for the Vicksburg Ambulance Service, they were told by the state that they would need to be paid for their time; they could no longer accept volunteers for the ambulance service in the 1980s.

A lack of trained employees led to the combining of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg’s stuttering ambulance services in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was led by Bob Thompson, then Schoolcraft Township supervisor, who brought the various fire departments together in an agreement to reduce costs and form the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority.

It was thought at the time to bring the ambulance service into that agreement. That didn’t happen; the two villages instead agreed to form the South County Emergency Medical Services (SCEMS).

The nonprofit company built behind the Bronson Vicksburg Hospital on N. Boulevard Street, purchased vehicles and staffed the nonprofit with paid emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Lifesaving equipment was upgraded in the ambulances and training became more advanced.

Operating on the payments from third party providers and government payments, South County EMS would stay afloat for many years. Then federal and state governments began including many more patients for reimbursement under Medicaid and Medicare calls. Costs were never fully covered. The company could stay alive with insurance reimbursement and ultimately by contracting with Borgess Hospital to transfer patients from the hospital to nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

Wes Schmitt, president of the SCEMS board, points to supplementing these lower payments with transport services, but the final stroke came when Borgess decided to go with one transport carrier, Pride Care, in April. Bronson had already limited its transports to Life Ambulance service.

The next chapter is yet to be written.

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