Ambulance service born of split with Martinsburg

November 30, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

Ryneal Fire Co. was born out of friendship with the city of Martinsburg more than 70 years ago.

Ryneal Medical Transport was born out of animosity and, in a way, came into being an hour before midnight on June 23, when six jurors returned a unanimous verdict.

The relationship between Ryneal and the city was long, complicated and, in recent years, bitter. Earlier this year the city filed a lawsuit against Ryneal, claiming the company needed to turn over three ambulances, a rescue truck and all of the money in its account. Ryneal had purchased the ambulances using fees collected whenever city-salaried medics transported people to the hospital. The ambulances were housed at the Martinsburg Fire Department.

After the six jurors heard four days of testimony, they decided Ryneal should turn over the rescue truck but keep the ambulances and three-fourths of the money in its account.


Their relationship with the city severed, Ryneal members had already decided to open a medical transport business. With three ambulances awarded to them by the jury, that goal became a reality less than two months after the verdict.

That's the history.

Now, to the present.

What Ryneal does

It's a cold night at Ryneal's facility, a former mechanic's shop on W.Va. 45 a couple of miles west of Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Two of the company's three ambulances are parked inside. A medical crew is using the third to take a heart patient to Johns Hopkins.

In the recreation room, a rerun of "Seinfeld" ends and a rerun of "Friends" begins.

A duffel bag has been tossed atop a bunk bed, where medics can take a nap.

Mary Helmick, 45, Ryneal's president/manager, has just come from her other job, where she works in a pharmacy. At Ryneal she answers the phone, dispatches calls and is certified to drive an ambulance. She said she hopes to begin taking EMT classes in January.

On this night she's talking to the medical crew heading to Johns Hopkins, who have taken a wrong turn. Ryneal employees quickly pull out maps and log onto the Internet to track down directions.

Within minutes the problem is corrected and the crew arrives at the hospital.

Mostly Ryneal performs interfacility transports - taking people from one medical facility to another. As long as the trip begins or ends in West Virginia, Ryneal crews can head just about anywhere. They've been to New Jersey and on an especially long trip to St. Clairsville, Ohio, on the night Tropical Storm Isabel hit.

If a sick person needs to be taken to the hospital and calls Ryneal, Ryneal can do the transport. If the sick person calls 911, Ryneal cannot, Helmick said.

Occasionally Ryneal will respond to emergency calls, if requested.

If a patient with a serious condition needs to be airlifted to a hospital, but bad weather prevents a helicopter from flying, Ryneal can transport them, Helmick said.

For Helmick, who has been involved with Ryneal since she was a child, spending time at the station is more than a job. It's her passion.

She said she stops by every day and is on call 24-7.

"We go home and feed our dogs," she said, not really joking, of herself, her husband Mike and other employees at the company. Her home, work, cell and pager phone numbers are posted in Ryneal's office.

"I love it. I really do," she said. "It's a great atmosphere."

D.J. Weller, Ryneal's squad training officer, said the lack of a rank structure helps keep morale high at Ryneal.

"Everybody works as a group down here to accomplish one goal," Weller said.

During a tour of Ryneal's building, Helmick pointed out the sleeping area, supply room, bathroom, shower, "TV room," and a kitchen area, complete with a refrigerator, stove, microwave and a couple of tables.

"It's like home away from home," she said.

The company is fully staffed with 33 employees - paramedics, EMTs, dispatchers and drivers. Paramedics handle calls that require advanced life support, while EMTs handle those that require basic life support.

A flat rate, plus mileage, is charged for each call. Although Helmick declined to give Ryneal's rates, she said they are comparable to those charged by the other two medical transport companies that have stations in Martinsburg.

Ryneal opened Aug. 18.

"It's been a challenge and we're doing what we expected to do. We plan to get better. (We) hope to get better," Helmick said.

As is the case with most businesses, Ryneal has its quiet days and its busy days, when extra crews are called in to work.

Helmick said she is especially proud of her employees, many of whom work a second job in addition to working for Ryneal.

In the future Helmick said she hopes the company will continue to grow and continue providing service with the most up-to-date equipment. All of the company's ambulances are four-wheel drive and a supply room is fully stocked.

Charitable work is also in its future plans, Helmick said.

When the company was still affiliated with the Martinsburg Fire Department, Ryneal members often took part in charitable events. They were business partners with an elementary school, made donations to various organizations and gave each city firefighter a cash holiday bonus.

They've done what they can since, Helmick said. Ryneal provided an ambulance free of charge at Berkeley County Youth Football games, and once had to take a player with an injured leg to the hospital.

An ambulance was stationed at the Berkeley County Youth Fair, during the Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival parade in Martinsburg and during the Haunted Trail.

When asked what the best part of her job is, Helmick's response prompted a coworker to chide that she gave the politically correct answer. Helmick, though, refused to budge, politically correct or not.

"Serving the community," she said.

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