ROCKWOOD — Betty Reckards is always on call. She never takes a vacation and she has a pager that she carries in her pocket 24/7.

As the only full-time licensed EMT in Somerset County’s unorganized territory, she is often the first person to respond to medical calls in a roughly 2,700-square-mile area.

She’s also 83 years old.

“The best is that the patients are so glad to see you, and they’re so thankful,” Reckards said of her job. “That’s the best part. When you save a life, that is one of the most rewarding things that could ever happen.”

Reckards was recently recognized with the Maine EMS Lifetime Achievement Award at the State House in Augusta. In addition to her work as an EMT, she has been a firefighter for 19 years and says she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.

After careers in a number of different fields — Reckards was a medical technician, pastry chef, a real estate agent and was Rockwood town clerk for 15 years — she became interested in emergency medical service after her second husband, Fred Reckards, a well-known canoe maker, died in 1994.

“I had to do something to keep me occupied because I’m a workaholic,” Reckards said.

She joined the fire department in 1996 and became an EMT around 1998.

At that time, the fire department was minimal. There were no walls and no running water. The department would drill for water through the ice in Moosehead Lake in the winter.

Now the fire station looks much different and much more modern, but there are still challenges to running a rural fire department, Reckards said, such as recruiting and maintaining a stable roster and navigating remote and often distant areas.

The department is the only one in Somerset County’s unorganized territory and the only one in the state that is supported by a county budget. There are just 330 year-round residents in Rockwood, which is about 20 miles north of Greenville. About 800 people live in the county’s unorganized territory, which makes up about 70 percent of the land in the county.

The fire station is on a gravel lot that it shares with the log cabin-like Rockwood Community Center and the former Rockwood Elementary School. The school closed in 2009 when the state Department of Education deemed it “economically not viable.”

There were just two children enrolled in kindergarten through grade five when it closed.

“I love it here,” said Reckards, who is just 5-feet, 2-inches tall. “I like the rural area and the wildlife.”

ON CALL

Born in Old Town, Reckards lived in Newport before moving to Rockwood with her first husband in 1965. She was a pastry chef at the Mount Kineo Inn when her husband died of a heart attack.

When her second husband died years later, Reckards completed EMS training in Bangor over the course of three months, learning how to check vital signs, bandage patients, get them out of vehicles and put them on backboards. “It’s quite a lengthy procedure, and that’s why a lot of people don’t want to do it,” she said.

Reckards is the only full-time EMT in Rockwood and the unorganized territory in Somerset County. There is one other part-time EMT who fills in for Reckards if she has to run an errand in Greenville.

She says she never takes a vacation.

There are eight firefighters on the fire department. Yet as a rural fire department, the nature of the calls the department gets look different than many other departments around the state.

There hasn’t been a structure fire in the area in about 15 years, although there were two chimney fires last year and the fire department also plays a key role in responding to medical calls and accidents, which make up about 90 percent of the department’s calls.

Fire Chief Paul Blair said Reckards is there on just about every call that comes in.

“She’s 83 years old and she’s still doing this,” Blair said. “She’s definitely an asset to us. When she gets ready to be done, we’re going to lose quite a bit.”

A majority of the calls the department responds to include snowmobile and ATV accidents, car crashes, search-and-rescue missions and medical calls. The department has a specialized rescue sled that they can use to pull a person on a backboard out of the woods. Canoes and snowmobiles are also sometimes used at accident scenes.

“I know what she goes through, especially in that country,” said Reckards’ niece, Kathy Walston, who nominated her for the award and who is an EMT in Detroit. “A lot of her calls she has very little help with. I just can’t imagine doing it at her age. She’s one tough lady.”

DOING HER JOB

One of the hardest things about the territory is it’s vastness and the challenge of identifying a location — there are lots of houses and camps that are not identified with street numbers and lots of residents or visitors whose locations can’t be found in a phone book or on a map.

To help solve that problem, Reckards spent the better part of a year documenting every cottage in the area with the local 911 coordinator and putting locater signs up on snowmobile trails.

Reckards said one of the most memorable rescues she ever went on included a husband and wife who were snowmobiling. The woman had fallen off the sled and her leg was broken.

“I wanted to get her back-boarded and I was trying to talk to her, but she was screaming like crazy,” Reckards said. “I found out later that she was about 32 years old and had six kids. I said, ‘Mister, you are going to pay for that one. You’re going to be taking care of six kids.'”

She said it can be difficult to arrive on a scene where a person is seriously hurt — like the fatal snowmobile crash on Mount Kineo last winter. Reckards arrived there by snowmobile with a game warden. They were warned by dispatch that the call possibly involved a death, and when they arrived found the man had been ejected from the sled, thrown into the path of another snowmobile and run over.

“The first time I was on it was very difficult. You sort of take it to heart. I know I do, especially if it is somebody I know. But I think being a professional, your professionalism takes over and you just do your job,” Reckards said.

On a recent afternoon at the fire department, a visitor stopped by: Rodger Johnson, of Cambridge, Mass., a firefighter who retired in 2008. He was in the area to go fishing and wanted to see the firetrucks and reminisce.

“I miss it, I like coming to see all the bells and whistles, the trucks,” Johnson said.

“It always stays in your head,” Reckards agreed. “Once you’re a firefighter, you’ll always be one. It’s something you can never relinquish.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm