The Axton Life Saving Crew shut down this summer after more than 30 years of serving Henry County residents. Pictured are Gloria Kirby, vice president of the crew's board, and Janice Agnew, its chairwoman. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

In late June, officials overseeing the operations of Axton Life Saving Crew distributed a letter announcing that the agency would immediately cease operations after more than 30 years. 

“We take great pride in our community and the vital service that we provide for our neighbors and families,” Chairwoman Janice Agnew wrote in the open letter.

“We’ve always looked to serve the community to the best of our ability — the residents of Axton deserve nothing less. Without an adequate number of volunteers, we fear that we will no longer be able to maintain that standard of excellence. For that reason, we believe it is time to consolidate our resources and support the Henry County Department of Public Safety and other volunteer rescue squads as they prepare to assume this essential responsibility.” 

The decision, according to Gloria Kirby, vice president of the crew’s board, comes in the midst of a number of hurdles, chief among them the crew’s volunteer pool. 

“We had got down to zero people who were trained,” Kirby said. “We did have drivers, but we did not have EMTs that could work on the patients.” 

What happened in Axton has been playing out across the country; in recent months, EMS squads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Jersey and more have struggled to recruit volunteers.

At the time the board decided to shutter operations, the Axton crew had just a single volunteer certified for EMT work. Kirby explained that the crew had had only a single certified volunteer since fall of last year.

For a while, the crew was able to continue operations with help from the county’s public safety department, which provided certified personnel. 

In May, however, the team’s sole certified member had to step down due to medical concerns. This prompted the oversight board to formally close the crew’s doors. 

The Axton Life Saving Crew was created in 1992 to serve parts of Henry County including Axton. According to Agnew, residents were motivated to establish the crew due to an abnormally long wait time on an accident response. Agnew said that while the victim eventually died at the hospital, the person might have survived if they’d been rescued earlier. 

During its 30-plus years of operation, the crew peaked at 60 volunteers from throughout its 114-square-mile coverage area. It participated in community events, including picnics, festivals and fundraisers, in an effort to further ingrain itself with the community, while increasing visibility.

Despite this, the squad, much like others throughout the state and the country, continued to experience a lack of participation.

While the number of EMS providers in Virginia has actually grown in recent years — from 34,785 in 2017 to 38,089 this June — that increase is largely due to a rising number of nonvolunteer EMS staffers, according to Tristen Franklin of the Virginia Department of Health. 

Most segments of EMS providers have seen decreases, Franklin said; the exception is nonvolunteer paramedics, whose ranks have been slowly increasing.

The number of EMS agencies in Virginia has been slowly dropping, according to state records. In 2017, the state had 628 EMS agencies. In 2022, it had 560, a drop of almost 11%.

The decline has been even more precipitous among community nonprofit EMS agencies, which saw a drop of 18% percent — from 274 to 224 — between 2017 and 2023, according to state statistics.

“A lot of agencies have folded up,” said Bubby Bish, executive director of the Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads.

The association, according to Bish, has a membership of about 500 rescue squads from around the state. Bish said he has seen a definite trend stemming from an increasingly diminished volunteer pool. 

Bish said one solution is getting statewide traction.  

“They are having paid people cover things at daytime and volunteers at night,” he said. 

Matt Tatum, Henry County’s director of public safety, speculated that the pandemic made the issue worse. 

Kirby agreed, saying that the last thing rescue squads needed was another complication. 

“Prior to 2020 … we were holding our own, we were able to cover calls,” Kirby said, adding that changed once the pandemic started.

Tatum spoke to the possibility of a dampening effect from fear of COVID-19 exposure. This, he said, could have contributed to a trend that predates the pandemic by years. It’s a trend that, at the local level, rescue squads have long noticed and tried to get ahead of, to varying degrees of success. 

“We went from probably, when I first started 12 years ago, a good 10 to 15 active members to now we’re down to about three or four,” said Derek Wagner, chief of the Jeb Stuart Volunteer Rescue Squad in Patrick Springs. 

Within the past year, crews in Surry and Washington counties announced significant changes directly stemming from a lack of volunteers.

The last time Henry County saw a squad shut down was in 2007 or 2008, Tatum said. With Axton’s crew gone, EMS crews in Bassett, Fieldale-Collinsville, Horsepasture and Ridgeway are the only volunteer crews left in Henry County. 

Volunteer availability is the common denominator among closures, Tatum said. “These organizations are ran and operated solely by volunteers. As people have gotten busier, they have become less likely to volunteer.” 

Wagner wasn’t surprised to learn that the Axton Life Saving Crew had ceased operating. 

“I think it’s just a change in times,” he said. The time it takes to train for EMT certification is another roadblock, he added. “People are having to work two or three jobs. I think people enjoy their time.”  

In 2003, the Danville Area Training Center at Danville Community College opened its doors. At the time, it was believed that training centers like the one in Danville and Patrick & Henry Community College would drive interest in volunteer EMT work by offering a nearby solution to overcoming the learning curve. 

“There is a lot of time put into an EMT class,” said center Director Brian Alderson. “Unless you are 18 years old, coming out of high school, it’s difficult for volunteers.” 

In Virginia, 16 is the minimum age to be certified to volunteer. 

Like rescue squads, training facilities like the one in Danville have also experienced a drop in student participation, Alderson said. 

“This year, I think 22 started in the class and 19 finished,” he said, saying that there has been a small rebound since the lockdown. 

He said the state requires 154 hours of EMT instruction, which usually equates to about eight months of training. 

“Our evening class, which is more convenient for people, it starts in October and runs through May,” he said. “The majority of people who are taking this class are working elsewhere.” 

Alderson said the time needed to become certified could be a roadblock. 

“If you want people to come to your house and help you, you want them to be well-trained,” he said. “I think it’s harder to become a volunteer now than it was years ago. I think time is such a hot commodity; the time to put in the class is tough.” 

Wagner said he can see a future in which full-time EMTs outnumber volunteers. It is, according to Wagner, one of the last remaining solutions. 

“I can’t think of anything,” Wagner said. “I don’t know what else we can do.” 

In Axton, the county’s public safety department will continue to fill in the gap at no additional cost to the county. Tatum said that residents should not experience a noticeable change.

While saddened by the ultimate outcome, Kirby is confident that someday someone will come along to carry the Axton Life Saving Crew’s torch. 

“We’re thankful that public safety is available and they will provide the service that we need,” Kirby said. “Maybe at some point or another, sometime down the line, somebody will see a way to bring it back and we can start the squad back up.”

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at