By Connie Leinbach
At any time of the day or night, Mark Justice, an Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department medical responder, can be called out on an emergency.
Justice knows it’s a weighty responsibility.
“When you take the firemen’s Call of Duty pledge, you have to be responsible,” he said about his avocation as a volunteer fire fighter for the last 20 years and as first assistant fire chief for the last four years. Volunteers like Justice are essential on an island without an emergency medical facility and where medical emergency calls occur far more often than fire calls.
There were 15 medical-responder calls in the last month alone and only one fire call, which turned out to be a false alarm.
These volunteers have been a crucial safety net on the island since 1966 when the OVFD was founded. Along with Justice, Micah Bassell also is an OVFD medical responder. When the two Hyde County paramedics, Dana Long and Mike Damba, are off their paid duty, they also respond, as does Sandy Yeatts, an EMT.
This year, the OVFD is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It’s big annual fundraiser, the Firemen’s Ball in the Community Center on May 28, nets $50,000 to $80,000 to keep the company and its volunteers watching over Ocracoke.
Justice is usually the first to arrive at any emergency since his livelihood as proprietor of the Fudge and Ice Cream Shop in Community Square allows him the flexibility to do so. Albert O’Neal, the fire chief for 19 of the company’s 50 years, or Ernie Doshier, the second assistant chief, also respond when their schedules allow.
“Between the three of us, there’s always someone here,” Justice said while taking a break one sunny afternoon serving customers. O’Neal has been a member of the company for 31 years and Justice 20 years, having moved up the ranks to his position today.
“I can call in an LZ (an emergency helicopter to the landing zone at the airport),” he said. “And I can jump from medical to fire.”
All island emergency responses, he said, are a team effort between the fire company and the EMTs hired by Hyde County to be on the island.
“Paramedics can’t do a whole lot by themselves alone, and we can’t do what a paramedic can do,” Justice said. He recalled one of the most amazing efforts he helped with—when the team brought a man back to life.
Several years ago, a call came in about a man in his late 80s staying at a house in Oyster Creek.
“He wasn’t feeling well, and (the EMTs) loaded him into the ambulance to take him to the OBX hospital,” Justice said.
As Justice was returning to his home, he suddenly heard one of the EMTs calling for help and raced to the sheriff’s office where the ambulance had pulled over.
The patient’s heart had stopped. Justice began doing chest compressions while the EMTs gave him air.
“They had to defibrillate him, and then he woke up and looked right at me,” Justice said. “He asked me where we were, and I told him we were across from Howard’s Pub.”
“‘Can we get some shrimp?’ the man asked.”
“‘No, but maybe later,’ I said,” Justice recalled, smiling.
The man continued to the hospital and later received a pacemaker, Justice said.
“That was worth every hour of training I put in—to get that man awake,” he said.
He is humble about his position. “It’s just a drive to help my community,” he said about his dedication. “The island people know me and feel relief when I come (to the scene). That’s what drives me.”
When he’s not making fudge, sundaes or cupcakes at his shop, Justice, also a carpenter and woodworker, makes wood carvings. His current project is a red-tailed hawk.