As recalled by Gene Glaze, Don Black and Paul Wilkerson                                                                  Authored by Brad Tipton

Squad Beginnings – The ARC Life Saving Squad

The Chattanooga – Hamilton County Rescue Service (CHCRS) was established in June 1937 as the American Red Cross Life Saving Squad, a volunteer effort to fill an urgent need for emergency services in the Chattanooga area. The founding members were volunteer medical responders certified in Basic Life Support through the American Red Cross. In the early years, CHCRS primarily functioned as a First Responder service, but also provided marine rescue, firefighting and medical standby services. Water recoveries were frequent in the early years and the American Red Cross furnished the squad two boats for dragging operations in 1938. The boats were officially the squad’s first vehicles.

One of the squad’s earliest responses was to a tragic fire in the Southern Hotel, which is known today as the Chattanooga Choo Choo, where five lives were lost and a dozen firefighters were injured battling the blaze. Squad members assisted in the search and evacuation of the hotel and assisted firefighters in fire suppression. Squad members organized triage in the Choo Choo Terminal and administered medical aid to the injured. Due to the lack of an organized firefighting agency in the 30’s, 40’s and early 1950’s and the volume of large scale structure fires in those decades, the squad was routinely pressed into action to supplement firefighting services. These fires were unusually large, catastrophic and many times fatal, in contrast to present day structure fires. This was primarily due to the absence of modern building and fire codes that were not adopted in Tennessee until the 1960’s.

In September 1940, the squad provided medical standby services during President Roosevelt’s dedication ceremony at the newly constructed Chickamauga Dam.  The squad would again serve during the visit of Vice President Agnew’s visit to the Scenic City in 1967 when the Chattanooga Airport suddenly lost power mere hours before Agnew’s address. Paul Wilkerson and squad members scrambled generators to the airport and restored power just before the Vice President was scheduled to speak. In 1992, CHCRS continued the tradition of serving during Presidential visits by providing medical stand-by services during George H. W. Bush’s visit to Chattanooga.

 By 1943, the founding members of the squad were very active in the training of other professionals in lifesaving techniques such as CPR and Basic Life Support. The squad played a pivotal role in the training of auxiliary police, firefighters and civil air corps leading up to the United States entering World War II. After the war, the ARC Life Saving Squad expanded membership and services to include motor vehicle extrication and rope rescue. The squad’s first cave rescue was recorded as missing spelunkers in Nickajack Cave in 1947. They were found some time later in New York, obviously not by way of the cave. The 1950’s ushered in a decade of expanded federal government involvement in emergency preparedness on the local level.

The Federal Civil Defense Administration was founded and under its authority states were directed to develop Civil Defense programs and services to more adequately support communities. The Tennessee Civil Defense Agency was founded which allowed for the allocation of federal resources to communities to bolster emergency preparedness in the event of nuclear war with the USSR. The squad received its first truck from Tennessee Civil Defense in 1955.  The Chevy panel truck was a modified bread delivery truck outfitted for emergency response with lights and sirens. Funding from Civil Defense initiatives allowed the squad to expand both the quality and quantity of services provided to the Chattanooga area. In 1958, the American Red Cross ceased participation in emergency medical services due to liability concerns with squad members participating in inherently dangerous rescues. This closed the chapter on the 21 years of squad service to the community as the ARC Life Saving Squad.

The Cold War Evolution of the Rescue Service – Civil Defense Rescue

In 1959, the squad became the Civil Defense Rescue Service with Gene Glaze serving as the first Chief of Operations, supported by Dave Evans as Chief of Administration. Paul and Jeanette Wilkerson were key members of the squad at this point and Paul remains a respected member to this day. During the first year, the squad expanded services to five dedicated rescue divisions in an effort to improve effectiveness and response time. The five divisions were Marine Rescue, Underwater Rescue, Cave/Cliff Rescue, Air Rescue and General Rescue. The volunteers of these units continued to respond to a high volume of emergencies throughout the 1960’s due to the strong influence of the Tennessee Civil Defense Agency and a continued lack of organized local government emergency services.

In the early 1960’s the Cave/Cliff Unit was officially formed by avid caver and squad member, Don Black. The first official response of the Cave/Cliff Unit was the recovery of a victim who fell 281 feet to his death in Mystery Falls Cave on Lookout Mountain. This proved a significant achievement by the squad considering in the early 1960’s the use of ropes for exploration of vertical caves was in its earliest stages and rope techniques were still developing and unproven. The Cave/Cliff Unit was involved in a number of harrowing cave rescues during the 60’s including a successful three day search of Case Cave on Lookout Mountain in April 1962 for three students. The Cave/Cliff Unit was called on again in April 1966 to rescue a group of Boy Scouts trapped in Howards Waterfall Cave after an explosion of gas fumes was caused by the group’s carbide lanterns. The incident left three cavers dead. Victims recalled that the explosion was so hot that it burned their clothes off and residents of nearby Trenton, GA could hear the explosion from many miles away. An investigation into the cause of the explosion discovered a ruptured fuel tank at a nearby gas station had leaked gasoline into the cave. Don Black went on to become the Chief of the Rescue Service and with his leadership the Cave/Cliff Unit evolved into a widely respected entity providing cave rescue services to the entire southeastern United States.

Another incredible incident on March 2nd, 1960 is credited to Mother Nature and is remembered by an entire generation of Chattanooga residents as “The Great Ice Storm of 1960”, arguably the worst ice storm ever recorded
in the Scenic City. Squad members battled their way up mountain roads to the communities of Signal and Lookout
Mountain while the snapping of trees reported like artillery fire all around them. Paul Wilkerson recalls responding to a call on Prentice Cooper for a pregnant lady in labor distress during the ice storm. Wilkerson remembers the hours of effort it took his team to clear the road of downed trees to reach their patient. Trees snapped in half from the weight of accumulated ice and fell in front and all around the rescuers as they were clearing the road. At times, Wilkerson and his team feared their lives would be ended by a falling tree. Upon their return down the mountain, with patient loaded for transport to the hospital, the team had to clear the road all over again. Cleanup from this epic storm lasted for months and squad members were critical in the community’s recovery.

In 1961, the Civil Defense Rescue Service was designated by the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee as an official arm of both governments’ emergency services. Around this time, the squad began vehicle extrication of victims involved in motor vehicle accidents. The squad acquired two hydraulic port-a-powers used to force open doors of wrecked vehicles. Extrication calls became the great majority of the squad’s emergency responses for the next two decades. The squad received from Civil Defense the very first set of Hurst extrication tools, better known as the “Jaws of Life”, in the entire state. At the height of its extrication responsibilities the squad operated four fully equipped vehicles with Hurst tools and was responding to approximately 600 motor vehicle accidents annually.

In the mid 1960’s the city and county were dealing with the issue of substandard ambulance services comprised mainly of local funeral home operators. In an effort to help mitigate this shortcoming, the squad acquired two Cadillac ambulances from the nearby Moccasin Bend Mental Hospital in an effort to improve these deplorable patient care issues by providing free ambulance services with trained medical technicians. Squad members from this time recall hearse operators who would leave the scene of an accident if it did not appear any of the victims would succumb to injuries before reaching the hospital. Wilkerson recalls hearse operators who would fight over victims of fatal motor vehicle accidents while ignoring victims who required transport to the hospital. In late 1969, the Chattanooga Times published a four part series of articles detailing the horrors of sub-standard patient care provided by funeral home hearse operators who provided unregulated ambulance services to the community. The Times articles proved effective in gaining traction for the development of county managed ambulance services and by the mid 1970’s the squad eliminated ambulance services due to vast improvements in regulations, patient transport and care.

April 1965, in the category of calls too strange to be made up, the squad responded to Marion County at the request of the Tennessee Highway Patrol to wrangle a 450 pound Grizzly Bear. The bear, escaped from his pen at a roadside traveling carnival in Marion County, was found wandering Hwy 41 and scaring motorists. Squad members managed to “capture the bear” using a 50 foot length of rope and distraction. The bear was walked grudgingly, putting up quite the fight, back down Hwy 41 to his pen without incident. A second unusual call in the same year involved an escapee of the Moccasin Bend Psychiatric Hospital who attempted escape by navigating the Tennessee River on a log. The escape attempt necessitated a rescue when the escapee became stranded on Williams Island near Baylor School.

State Charter – Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service

The squad was officially chartered by the State of Tennessee as the Chattanooga – Hamilton County Rescue Service on August 12, 1965. CHCRS members who signed the charter document included Gene Glaze, Dave Evans, Don Black, C Robert Clark, Fred Morrison and Paul Wilkerson. This act dissolved the squad’s ties to the Tennessee Civil Defense Agency and allowed us to become an independent non-profit corporation. CHCRS continued to demonstrate our commitment to providing exemplary emergency services to the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County and in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s expanded services to include Wildland Fire Fighting and Mobile Rehab Services.

During the 1980’s, the city and county made considerable advances in organized emergency response by establishing the Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management. The goal of this office was to implement a five year plan to improve emergency services in Hamilton County. On November 4th 1987, the County Commission approved the creation of the Hamilton County EMS to provide Advanced Life Support ambulance services to the Scenic City. In addition, the Chattanooga Fire Department began an effort to strategically place vehicle extrication teams across the city to provide better response times to motor vehicle accidents. During this initiative, CHCRS members were instrumental in training the CFD in the techniques of vehicle extrication. The expansion of emergency services from the paid government funded agencies in the city and county inevitably led in the decrease in call volume for CHCRS headed into the 1990’s. The squad would need to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant in an era of well-funded government emergency agencies.

During the 1990’s additional services included Trench Rescue and Hazmat response. CHCRS continued to evolve to provide valued services to the community and many high profile rescues furthered the squad’s reputation as a professional volunteer organization. The Cave/Cliff Unit had become known as the premier cave rescue team in North America and boasted quite a collection of talented individuals. Many unique situations required the technical expertise of CHCRS in this decade and the squad’s volunteers were always ready to respond to any challenge.   

In December 1990, CHCRS provided extrication services in the aftermath of the worst traffic accident in Tennessee history that resulted in a 125 car pile-up and the death of 15 people on 1-75 just north of Chattanooga. Agencies from all over the region participated in the effort to rescue victims from the chain reaction accident caused by heavy fog. Coincidentally, CHCRS responded to a second 75 car pile-up on I-75 south of Chattanooga in March 2002 that claimed the lives of five.

CHCRS Gains National Exposure - Cave/Cliff Rescue

In April 1991, members of the Cave/Cliff Unit were asked by the National Park Service to assist in the rescue of Emily Mobley Davis from Lechuguilla Cave. The four day evacuation of Davis from 1,565 vertical feet underground became national news and Captain Buddy Lane and Lieutenant Dennis Curry were heralded as local heroes. The Lechuguilla Cave rescue is still the deepest cave rescue in U.S. history and CHCRS members played pivotal roles in the successful response.

On August 15, 1992, CHCRS responded to Nickajack Cave once again to participate in the recovery of a

man assumed to have drowned while diving in the cave. Cave/Cliff Unit Captain Buddy Lane and Lieutenant Dennis Curry petitioned TVA to open the flood gates at the Nickajack Dam in an effort to lower the lake level which floods the cave. After the lake level lowered over 13 inches, Lane and Curry entered the flooded cave with flotation and shortly after located David Gant in a small air-bell clinging to life. The resulting rescue became widely known as the “Miracle at Nickajack Cave” and furthered the Cave/Cliff Unit’s reputation as a world class cave rescue team.
In May 1997, the Cave/Cliff Unit responded to a flooded McBrides Cave in Alabama to rescue a well-known caver who had suffered a broken femur in a fall. The rescue spanned 18 hours with many flood pulses continuously forcing rescuers to take refuge in areas above the water level. Determined CHCRS rescuers worked in a dangerous environment with the potential for flood waters to trap or kill rescuers in an effort to bring the injured caver out the lower entrance of the cave alive. The rescue required every cave rescue agency in the southeast and the resulting effort received national recognition and was re-enacted some years later for National Geographic.

The training and determination of CHCRS members in Trench Rescue was put to the test on a bitter cold evening in December 1998 when Darby Patrick was trapped in a deep trench under 15 feet of dirt. Completely buried for over four hours, rescuers worked tirelessly to uncover Darby. The resulting rescue lasted nearly 15 hours and was heralded as a miracle, but the determined effort of CHCRS rescuers was no miracle. Patrick would survive his ordeal and the story of his survival against such great odds was publicized nationally and re-enacted on the Discovery Channel. CHCRS members designed and deployed a homemade warm air inhalation unit, the first of its kind, that allowed medics to maintain the patient’s core temperature and likely saved his life.

The Post 9/11 and Katrina Evolution of CHCRS

The 21st century brought Hurricane Katrina and the post-9/11 period where unified response to natural disasters and terrorist attacks would be coordinated, well-funded operations with federal government oversight. This initiative allowed considerable federal funding to fire and emergency services and this indirectly had a negative effect on volunteer agencies such as CHCRS. The additional funding and resources allowed the government fire agencies to further expand their services to cover incidents within the city limits. Other services such as Trench Rescue and Medical First Response were absorbed by the city and county fire services. In response, CHCRS decided to start

pairing down services to focus on cave rescue, rope rescue, wilderness extrication and rehab services.

In 2011 and 2013, CHCRS was heavily involved in two of the most intensive cave rescues in American history. The rescue of an injured caver in Sinking Cove Cave lasted over 30 hours, required 113 rescuers and involved moving the patient up nine pits and canyons totaling 460 vertical feet to reach the surface. This rescue required intensive modifications to the cave to accommodate a packaged patient and considerable medical intervention from CHCRS medical staff. The 2013 rescue of a critically injured caver with a skull fracture and broken femur from Ellison’s Cave took 23 hours and required hauling the patient up the deepest vertical shaft in North America at 586 feet. The rescue required every cave rescue agency in the region and over 100 rescuers total. Again, extensive medical intervention provided by CHCRS medics allowed rescuers the necessary time to extract the patient from the cave and ultimately saved his life. Both of these monumental rescue efforts were realized by utilizing volunteer rescue agencies, proving that even in the 21st century, volunteer rescue squads can provide skilled, professional rescuers capable of serving the community.

Today, the Chattanooga – Hamilton County Rescue Service still operates as a resource of the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County Tennessee. CHCRS is a 501c3, non-profit organization, solely comprised of volunteers, which operates on donations received from the community. CHCRS continues to provide valuable professional services to the citizens of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the surrounding Tri-State area. Our Support Services provides rehab, 4x4 transportation, portable light trucks and standby services to the communities and agencies requiring our support. The Cave/Cliff Unit provides rope rescue, cave rescue, SAR and confined space rescue services to any agency, state or country that requests our response. The Cave/Cliff Unit has responded to cave accidents in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and New Mexico.

Over our nearly 80 year history, CHCRS members have been instrumental in the development of rescue techniques and training of rescue personnel. We continue that tradition today with many of our members recognized as leaders and innovators in their respected fields. CHCRS members are comprised of a highly respected emergency medicine physician with extensive experience in Wilderness Medicine, over 30 licensed medical professionals, many SPRAT certified rope access professionals, NCRC instructors, Swiftwater Rescue instructors, CPR and BLS instructors, firefighters and police officers. The squad continues to train and work closely with other agencies and professional organizations to further the cause founded by the first members in 1937, which was “We volunteer because we care”. The strength of the Chattanooga – Hamilton County Rescue Service is found in our achievements and in the continued dedication of our professional volunteer rescuers.

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Subpages (1): Chiefs of Rescue