Aug. 13 – About 14 years ago, when New Chapel Fire/EMS Capt. Kevin Wilkerson began his career with the department, he would often go more than a week without having to fix a truck or ambulance.
These days, it’s hard for him to find more than a minute or two when he’s not under the hood or working on something to keep the New Chapel fleet in top shape.
“Traffic volume has changed dramatically,” said Wilkerson, New Chapel’s chief engineer based at the department’s Utica Pike station in Clark County.
The mechanic saw the New Chapel fleet grow from eight ambulances to more than 30, with the addition of around 20 trucks and fire engines. Overseeing a crew of three, which includes his son and son-in-law, Wilkerson keeps New Chapel vehicles ready and operational for a profession where a one-second delay can mean the difference between life and death.
During an interview with the News and Tribune, Wilkerson focused on the camaraderie of the New Chapel team, their passion for helping those in need and the importance of emergency medical technicians, firefighters and other first responders.
Unless asked, Wilkerson doesn’t make much reference to the mechanics like him who keep the department running, but New Chapel Major Matt Owen didn’t let the captain’s modest approach hold.
“He’s a big asset to us here at our store,” Owen said of Wilkerson.
While Wilkerson, 50, and the team of mechanics have always been important to New Chapel, their value has really come to the fore during the pandemic. Supply chain shortages mean New Chapel is still waiting for replacement ambulances that were ordered more than a year ago.
But when the service call comes in, New Chapel can’t use supply delays as an excuse. People depend on New Chapel for emergency response, and New Chapel personnel depend on Wilkerson and his team to keep their vehicles running smoothly.
“These guys are on call all the time,” Owen said. “They take care of everything from the tires to the transmission and pretty much everything in between.”
The cost of a new boxed ambulance is nearly $200,000, so having mechanics able to repair vehicles is a major savings for New Chapel, which handles all ambulance response in Clark County and throughout Floyd County outside of New Albany.
Wilkerson, a Jeffersonville native, owned his own shop, raced super-bodied stock cars in his spare time, and began his connection with vehicles by learning mechanics from his father.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on something,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson is not only a mechanic, he is also a qualified EMT. After starting with New Chapel, he decided he wanted to get accreditation in case he was needed for emergency response.
Two of New Chapel’s three mechanics are EMT certified, and the third is in the process of getting his certification.
Being an EMT and working as a mechanic for New Chapel instilled in Wilkerson the importance of first responders.
“We are the first on the scene,” he said. “It may be a controlled environment, it may not be, but you are still expected to render a certain level of care.”
Those working in the field need to be patient and caring about people, and they need to be able to maintain their professionalism during tough races, Wilkerson said.
The hardest part is responding to an emergency that involves children, he continued. It’s rewarding to be able to help someone, but it can be devastating when someone dies or sustains a serious injury, Wilkerson said.
“Even when you know you’ve done all you could, you still have a moral responsibility that makes you feel like you could have done more, even though sometimes you can’t,” Wilkerson said.
Calls should be treated with the same urgency, which is why Wilkerson said it’s important for the public to realize what an emergency really is. It’s frustrating when crews are called in to respond to a minor medical issue, as someone in a real emergency might have to wait longer if there are multiple rides at the same time.
“Some people think we’re a taxi with red lights,” Wilkerson said.
When he’s not working, Wilkerson enjoys stock car racing, camping, and boating. He enjoys spending time with his family.
The new chapel staff are his second family and Wilkerson said he is very proud of his role with the department.
“From the day I came to work here, I felt like this was going to be my job forever, and I still feel that,” he said.