APEX — One question changed Randall Heath’s career path: “Are you an EMT?”
Heath was 17 and was working as a summer lifeguard in Winston-Salem when an American Red Cross worker asked if he was an emergency medical technician.
Heath wanted to be an elementary school teacher; he had no idea what an EMT was.
But once he found out, he was hooked.
As a rising high school senior, Heath got permission to take classes at the local community college to become certified as an EMT. Soon he was volunteering with the Forsyth Rescue Squad.
At the age of 18, he spent weekends pulling accident victims from wrecked cars and performing water rescues.
Heath, now 41, is the new chief of Apex EMS.
He is only the second person to ever hold the title. Heath stepped in to replace Nicky Winstead, a sort of legend in the local emergency services community. He helped start Apex EMS in 1971 as a volunteer rescue unit.
Winstead retired in June.
Along with overseeing a department of 26 employees, Heath faces repeated efforts by Wake County to take over the independent EMS agency in Apex. Over the past two years, the county has taken control of the agency’s revenue collection and cut funding for the EMS chief and the administrative assistant positions.
Apex will pay $150,000 to cover the jobs.
Heath said he isn’t worried about his future with Apex EMS. He got the sense early on, he said, that the town has a lot of pride for the agency.
“It was very refreshing to see how adamant the Town Council was to maintain EMS as part of the town,” Heath said. “That made me comfortable to see that they are very serious about it.”
Heath was selected for the job out of a pool of 84 candidates, said Town Manager Bruce Radford.
“After interviewing him, it was very clear he would be a good fit for us,” Radford said. “ He is smart, dedicated and knowledgeable. I think folks have already found him to be easy to get along with. He understands the legacy of the department.”
Heath came to Apex after serving seven years as the senior operations officer for WakeMed Hospitals and Health’s Mobile Critical Care Services. While there, he helped start the hospital’s air transport unit.
Prior to that, he was an administrative chief for EMS at New Hanover Regional Medical Center and a lieutenant for Forsyth County Emergency Medical Services, where he rose through the ranks from a volunteer position.
In the late 1990s while serving as an instructor for the EMT certification program at Wake Forest University, Heath started the first public-access defibrillation program on a college campus on the East Coast.
Becoming the Apex EMS chief allows Heath to return to the clinical side of emergency care, which is his passion.
“No one ever calls us because they are having a good day,” he said. “But (it allows us) to be able to take a very scary situation and make that better for someone.”
So far, Heath said, he has been impressed with the staff and the department Winstead left behind; he’s not planning for any major changes.
Heath said he’d like to add more community-education events, such as public CPR classes. He also wants to re-start a volunteer program for EMTs. Currently, the town only offers paid full-time and part-time positions.
“I’m looking forward to the new challenges,” Heath said.