Remembering Rosemary Culley’s Pioneering Contributions to Emergency Services

Chief Dispatcher Culley staffs the county’s emergency dispatch system in the basement of the courthouse addition, about 1968. In those days there was one person on a shift.

E. Rosemary Culley, 76, a trail blazing public servant, passed away Friday Afternoon.  During her life time she accomplished many things while also leading the way for women in emergency services.

Growing up in a Perryville Fire Company family she naturally continued that dedication into adulthood.  The early decades, the 1950s and 1960s, were occupied in the traditional way as a member of the ladies auxiliary.  Three times during that period she served as the president of Singerly Fire Company’s Auxiliary.

When Cecil established a central dispatch system in October 1961, she took a job with the county, joining the first group of five “operators” hired to take emergency calls.  She rose through the ranks of the Civil Defense Agency, which today is the Department of Emergency Services.   For years, she was the chief dispatcher, supervising a staff of “operators” working the telephone lines and radios around-the-clock.  In 1985, Rosemary became the third director of the agency, providing leadership in an organization that was rapidly professionalizing and expanding, its’ responsiblities growing far beyond a cold war mission.  After a 35-year career in emergency management she retired in 1997, becoming more active in Singerly and the “County Firemen’s Association” with added volunteer responsibilities.

Though she never dwelled on it, she broke barriers for women.  Rosemary and three other women became the fire female fire company members in 1975.  Completing an intensive EMT course, this group learned the ropes and passed a demanding examination.  Soon they were answering ambulance calls alongside male colleagues.  She never considered it a big deal but in later years, other young women joining the service had a female emergency responder for a role model.  That wasn’t available to those 1970s trail-blazers.

During her career she handled some of the biggest disasters in county history.  One dark December night in 1963, working all alone at fire headquarters, the phones, all of them, suddenly started jingling off the hook.  A large jet passenger plane, with 81 people on board, had exploded in mid-air over Elkton and gone down in flames in a cornfield at the edge of town.  All across Cecil station-house radios snapped urgently to life as the calm, professional voice of Dispatcher Culley broke the Sunday evening silence with the most of urgent of alerts.

Headquarters was pulsating with information coming in and going out as alarmed voices crackled over the radio asking for a general alarm, all available ambulances in the region, and more police as Rosie steadily coordinated the response to the terrible catastrophe, the most serious disaster in Cecil’s history.  As quickly as possible additional Civil Defense workers made their way through the heavy traffic to help the dispatcher single-handedly juggling it all, as bolts of lightning punctuated the Maryland darkness.

There were many other big disasters on her 35-year watch.  Hurricane Agnes devastated Port Deposit and the Susquehanna.  A gas explosion in Perryville demolished buildings downtown, claiming one life.  Following a massive train wreck with flames boiling up into the sky as hazardous material tanker cars exploded, a rapid evacuation of western Elkton was speedily carried out.  Three Mile Island, shipping accidents on the C & D Canal,  massive pile-ups on the Interstate, blizzards and tornadoes were some of the others.

Rosemary Culley, a pioneer in Cecil County Emergency Services, rose through the ranks, starting as a volunteer in the Ladies Auxiliary some 60 years ago and ending as an executive, the Director of Emergency Management.  Along the way she broke barriers and served as a role model for emergency responders.  Rosemary Culley will be missed and she will be remembered for a lifetime of public service to Cecil County and its citizens.

Rosie works the radios and watches the phones at fire headquaters, in the basement of the scout building in back of the old jail. It was October 1962. Photo Credit: Cecil Democrat

Rosemary (first on left), Rachel Gray, Henry Metz, Dan Brown, John J. Ward, of the emergency management staff, join Commissioner Mary Maloney in dedicating the 911 console in 1978.  Photo Credit Historial Society of Cecil County


4 responses to “Remembering Rosemary Culley’s Pioneering Contributions to Emergency Services

  1. William Sickles

    Rose Mary Culley…..An amazing woman…..When you heard her masterful sounding voice, you knew everything would be OK…..Always cool, calm and collected she did her job calling on Fire Stations, Police, Sheriff or State Police to go on emergency runs or fires or anything that was hazzardous. She did her duty for so many years…..It is very difficult to replace people like her…..Rest In Peace Rose Mary……You have earned your rest

  2. Bill thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree she was such a professional influence on so many of us and in so many areas. So many stories have flashed through my mind since I got the call yesterday afternoon. We’ll never hear that voice behind the microphone directing us (or others these days) or have her steady guidance at meetings. But her support and influence is something none of us will forget. She was also always so modest abot her accomplishments. I always had trouble getting her to talk about them.

  3. It is a sad day for cecil county and it’s citizens with the passing of Rosemary. I myself can thank her for saving my life in 1977. As a deputy sheriff then, I was on patrol near the Delaware and Maryland line one nigh about 4am when I came upon a person wanted by the federal government. I chased the suspect into Delaware, not knowing where I was and only giving the dispatcher the roads as I turned right and left. They had to look at a map on the wall to see where I was. I had a car accident and could only call for help not knowing where I was. Thanks to the best trained dispatchers, they were able to send me help and I was taken to the hospital. I also want to thank her for my wife. My wife was a dispatcher for the sheriffs dept under Jack Dewitt. I met her and after 33 years being married and three wonderful children, with two grand children, I can thank Rosemary and jack for her. God bless her, she will be missed.

    • Charlie, thanks so much for sharing that story about Rosie, It was a steady, calm voice behind the microphone dispatching and looking out for Cecil County Emergency Respopnders as she worked those shifts.

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