Swain starts to budge on Deal’s Gap debateWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
Despite Graham County pledging to end all emergency services to Deal’s Gap starting Jan. 1, its EMS director has already sent rescue squads to respond to tractor trailer wrecks in the Swain territory since the year began.
Graham’s emergency services director Larry Hembree says he’ll continue to send ambulances to Deal’s Gap, but only if Swain County asks for help.
“If there’s an ambulance call, and they request our assistance, we will go,” said Hembree.
Until this year, Graham habitually responded to wrecks in Swain’s Deal’s Gap — gateway to the world-famous Dragon, a mythic road in Tennessee that sports 318 curves in 11 miles. A curvy stretch of N.C. 28 known as Hellbender also winds through Deals Gap. Both attract hordes of motorcycles and sports cars.
Starting this year, Graham County commissioners officially handed over emergency services for the area to Swain after growing exasperated with the increasingly expensive service as the number of wrecks rose there. Graham asked Swain for a financial contribution to continue emergency coverage, but Swain refused.
Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said 911 calls have been transferred to Swain County, and that Graham should not respond without an agreement in writing — in contrast to Hembree’s stance that they would continue to pitch in if needed.
“Without a mutual aid agreement in place, it puts our county at a risk of liability,” said Odom. “You’re leaving your home jurisdiction, going into another jurisdiction...you’re putting your county at risk because you’re doing something at risk.”
While calls have been few and far between for now, the true test of Swain’s ability to respond will come when the weather warms up and droves of motorcycles and sports cars crowd up the dangerously curvy roads there.
“Around the first of April is when it’s going to heat up,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “That’s not too far off. I guess we’ll see how good a job they do at that point.”
Kevin King, county manager for Swain, said the county is still exploring its options, including assigning a first responder to Deal’s Gap.
But for Swain, a new mutual aid agreement with Graham is still not off the table.
“If they’ve incurred costs down there, we want to ensure that they break even,” said King. “We would be more than happy to entertain a mutual agreement that we would pick up the difference.”
Previously, Graham responded to wrecks in Deal’s Gap in exchange for Swain transporting Graham residents from the hospital in Bryson City to other destinations and responding to mountain bike accidents in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area. But Graham claimed the arrangement was far from equal.
Since the debate began, Graham has suggested everything from annexing the territory to receiving $100,000 annually from Swain for its services.
The first option was out of the question for Swain, and the $100,000 seemed exorbitant. Graham lowered its sights to $80,000 per year, but that was still higher than Swain desired.
King said Swain does not want to shell out the $50,000 annual payment that Graham has requested most recently.
Swain wants to make sure it’s not handing over more than necessary since Graham will recoup some of the costs from the patients it transports.
Nevertheless, Swain Commissioner David Monteith said he’s optimistic about sitting down with Graham commissioners soon to work out a deal.
“I think we’ve found some ground everybody can work for,” said Monteith, though he would not elaborate. “I think what’s going to take place is going to be good.”
What’s Swain doing out there?
Deal’s Gap is an outlying area of Swain County that’s surrounded by Graham County. Deal’s Gap bordered the rest of Swain County in the past but became isolated after Lake Fontana was created.
The satellite territory is so far-flung that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to reach it from Bryson City. Ambulances from neighboring Graham County can arrive on scene a full 20 minutes faster.