As a teenager, Shuping struggled to settle on a clear direction for his post-high school life, but his dad, a state employee, handed him a simple piece of advice.
“He said, ‘Son, if you’re not going to be a rocket scientist, you probably ought to work for the government, because they have really good retirement,’” said Shuping, now 49 and days away from retirement as Haywood County Emergency Services Coordinator.
Back in Burke County, he started working as a firefighter and paramedic with a fascination for search and rescue operations. As a special ops medic, Shuping often helped with dramatic rescues in the gorge.
“I would do helicopter rescues and pretty extreme rescues there in the Linville Gorge Wilderness,” said Shuping. “I got my taste doing it there.”
Shuping maintained his appetite for wilderness rescue when he and his wife, a Haywood County native, moved to Waynesville in 1997. Shuping began working as a paramedic and was then promoted to shift supervisor. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001, blowing everyone’s sense of security to smithereens, Haywood County hired its first-ever emergency services coordinator — Shuping.
Two decades of change
At the time, few counties Haywood’s size had a position dedicated to emergency preparedness. Haywood didn’t have any emergency operations plans to speak of when Shuping took the job.
“Since then, of course, we have a comprehensive Emergency Operations Plan, and it’s been tested many times through the years,” said Shuping. “In 2004, we had the back-to-back hurricanes that really kicked us in gear there with emergency planning. And I remember those days where we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants. Nobody really knew what their job was when a major disaster happened. It was kind of a trial by fire. We learned what our jobs were very quickly.”
When Shuping came to Haywood County in 1997, there were two 24-hour ambulance crews and a third active only Monday through Friday during daytime hours. Backcountry searches were performed by fire department volunteers, with paramedics dispatched in case of a medical emergency, but none of the first responders had any specific wilderness rescue training to rely on. There was no management structure or logistical coordination to speak of.
“We were just walking through the wilderness ourselves and hoping we would run into someone who was lost,” said Shuping.
In 24 years, a lot has changed. Now the county has six 24-hour ambulances on its roster as well as two peak time units and a supervisor on staff around the clock. There are 61 paramedics on the county payroll compared to 20 or so in the late ‘90s.
Then, there’s the Search and Rescue Team. Today, this specialty team housed under the Haywood County Search and Rescue Squad includes about 30 highly trained outdoorsmen and women who volunteer their time to respond to complex and hazardous backcountry emergencies. There’s even a new special ops paramedic team to address the medical side of these emergencies.
“Now we have an organized Search and Rescue Team that is second to none,” said Shuping. “They’re so good that counties from all across the state and other states call them to help them when they have a search.”
Not only does the county have a rock star roster of SAR team members, it has a full-on incident management team akin to the multi-agency response teams that manage major incidents like large western wildfires. Shuping said developing that team is his proudest accomplishment of the past 20 years.
“I’ve got a team that can come up there and manage that and support the sheriff to take care of the searchers, and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “We’re known across the state, and we’re known across the Southeastern region for having this team that does that.”
Greg Shuping (left) and Sheriff Greg Christopher (center) assist on the October 2020 search for Chad Segar in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area, which ended tragically when Segar was found dead on day six of the search. Donated photo
Shuping’s years in emergency management have led him to a straightforward philosophy about his profession. Emergency management is about preparedness, and preparedness is about relationships.
“Folks in my position, you can sit back and really do nothing sometimes because the call volume’s not there,” he said. “You can just kind of hang out. Or you can think about these hypothetical scenarios and you can figure out, who do I need to bring to the table?”
While Shuping has worked hard to build up Haywood’s emergency response infrastructure, he said that in reality his scope of authority is “pretty small.” His program’s success depends on the cooperation of other agencies. From that standpoint, Sheriff Greg Christopher’s swearing-in in 2013 a “pivotal point” for search and rescue.
“I met with him on day one, and I said, ‘Sheriff, law enforcement really needs to be involved in these search and rescues,’ and he agreed,” said Shuping. “He said, ‘What do we need to do?’”
From there, both departments started putting more money and resources into training and cross-training their people to better prepare for the types of emergencies that are inevitable in the mountains.
“That’s when we started to see less of these three- and four- and five-day searches,” said Shuping. “They turned into half-day searches because we were putting the right people up there with the right training and the right equipment.”
When someone gets lost in the backcountry, they call 911, and it’s then the sheriff’s department’s responsibility to conduct a preliminary investigation into the circumstances of situation and activate resources — such as a the Search and Rescue Team — to bring the person out safely.
Sometimes, a few minutes on the phone with a Search and Rescue Team member is enough to avert disaster — crew members have an intimate knowledge of the terrain and trails that often cause people trouble. Other times, it’s a boots-on-the-ground kind of mission, and while multi-day searches are less common than they used to be, they still happen.
One of the most difficult missions that comes to Shuping’s mind is the 2015 search for Julie Hays, a 49-year-old assistant district attorney from Tennessee who disappeared on a solo hike to Cold Mountain. She reached the summit on a Saturday afternoon in September but failed to return home, prompting a search that for more than 24 hours turned up exactly nothing.
“We called Fish and Wildlife officers up there, because we’re just trying to figure this out,” said Shuping. “And the Fish and Wildlife officer says, ‘Hey, have you tried the Lenoir Creek drainage?’ which is a drainage off the north face of Cold Mountain. And sure enough we put a team in there and we find her and we save her life.”
It turned out that Hays had reached the top of the mountain, understandably exhausted, and leaned against a tree. The tree turned out to be dead. It gave way, and she tumbled down the mountain — injured and unable to escape on her own, but alive. If Shuping hadn’t spent the months and years before Hays took her hike cultivating relationships like that fortuitous one with the Fish and Wildlife officers, that story would likely have had a tragic ending rather than a happy one.
Preparation is key
Shuping believes that every emergency can be prepared for, and that preparation prevents panic. If you’re prepared, the incident is an emergency only for the victim — for responders, it’s a “step-by-step, methodical process.”
When the pandemic hit, Shuping thought he may have seen the exception to that rule. He’d prepared to respond to a public health emergency, but he’d never expected to face something of this scale.
“The stress level when this thing first began was pretty overbearing, but once we got our feet under us, we realized it was just like a search,” he said. “It’s just going to last a while.”
There are more parallels than you might think between managing a backcountry rescue command post — handling an influx of incoming communications and information, adapting to shifting conditions, disseminating food and supplies to responders — and responding to a pandemic.
“Look at how quickly and how well and how organized our vaccination program is here in Haywood County, and then look at other counties, and I think you’ll see a marked difference between the two,” said Shuping. “And that is because of our level of preparedness here and our level of organization.”
State data show that as of Jan. 20 Haywood County had provided first shots to 3,726 people, or 6 percent of its population, compared to 4 percent of entire state population. A Jan. 22 press release said the county’s number had since jumped above 6,000 — about 10 percent.
While Shuping is stepping down as Emergency Services Director — he’s officially done as of Feb. 1 — he said he’s “not ready for the rocking chair yet.”
“Retirement’s a bad word for me, because I’m just transitioning to a different time in my life,” he said. “And I feel like I’ve got good experiences and good capabilities to still help this community, and I want to.”
Shuping plans to transition to a part-time county position working with the incident management team he helped create. But he’s confident about the future of emergency response in Haywood County, saying that he wouldn’t have chosen this moment for retirement if he believed that doing so would leave his people hanging. Travis Donaldson, who is currently the deputy director of administration for the Emergency Services Department, will take over Shuping’s job on an interim basis.
“I am so tickled to death that we have great paramedics and emergency management folks here that do a fantastic job,” said Shuping. “I want folks in the county to know that they have something very special here. I had something to do with it, but really just bringing the right folks into this thing so that it doesn’t matter whether I’m here running this thing or not — it’s going to be great for the people.”