The Guilford County commissioners often get to hear about the work of the county’s Emergency Services Department.

However, this week, District 6 Commissioner James Upchurch got an all-day, up-close, first-person view of the workings of the department – and he said he learned a whole lot of valuable information thanks to the experience.

When Upchurch ran for his seat on the Board of Commissioners several years ago, Guilford County Emergency Services workers were sometimes starting at a paltry salary of $12 and change an hour – and that’s something that the Board of Commissioners, with the help of Upchurch remedied last year.  The board brought that starting salary up to at least $15 an hour. (The late Carolyn Coleman, a former county commissioner, was also a huge advocate of raising county employee pay up to at least a $15 an hour level before she passed away in January.)

Upchurch showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 6 a.m. on Monday, June 6 and spent all day on a ride-along with a crew of county EMTs responding to events.

It didn’t take long before they found someone in need: At about 7 a.m. the unit responded to a call of a woman who had fallen out of a tree and appeared to have broken a bone. They took her to the hospital and, that day, they ended up taking many others to three different area hospitals.

Upchurch said he’s planning to meet with Guilford County Manager Mike Halford to discuss some of the needs that county EMS staff have.  He said he learned a lot of relevant information that may help address the county’s frequent shortage of EMS workers.

“Everyone offered ideas,” he said. “I got a lot of feedback that I was excited to hear.”

Much of it was positive, the commissioner said.  Upchurch said there’s a great deal of comradery and respect among the workers for each other – but there’s also the lure of more lucrative pay very close by.  Even starting at $15 an hour, other local governments come after the county’s EMS workers.

“There are some other counties that are paying more,” Upchurch said.

Upchurch added that he wants to see an effort to have Guilford County EMS workers better compensated if they have night shift hours.

One contributing factor to constant vacancies is also that, at the low entry salaries, some people choose to take much lower stress jobs at, say Chick-fil-a, Upchurch said.

“The pay is about the same and there’s a lot less pressure,” he said of the fast-food industry.

Upchurch will be discussing with Halford the possibility of a “pipeline” program that funnels students directly from the school system into EMS careers.

The workers, Upchurch said, also need to be protected.  Some of the situations they come across are very dangerous.

“Per capita Greensboro and High point are some of the most dangerous places in the state – and often in the top 50 nationally,” he said.

He added that he had also been impressed by the professionalism of the EMTs and supervisors he came in contact with and said that everyone seemed to have a great deal of respect for one another.

One of the most famous cases of a Guilford County commissioner getting deep into the weeds to learn about a situation was about two decades ago when then Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Thigpen – now register of deeds –  voluntarily spent a night in the county jail undercover to learn what the conditions there were like.