Palo Alto's hyper-busy paramedics service is celebrating its 40th anniversary Sunday, with a show-off of its equipment and a family-oriented schedule of events.
Many of those who will check out the birthday-party health fair weren't even born when the program's van rolled on its first official callout in 1975. The event will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Bowl, 600 E. Meadow Drive, in south Palo Alto. Ice cream, chili and demonstrations are planned, along with a "kids corner" of games. The City Council will commemorate the anniversary at its meeting Monday night.
Creation of the paramedics program didn't happen by accident. Few such things do. It was prompted by the revelation of serious problems and life-threatening deficiencies of the ambulance companies 40 years ago, documented in a five-part series published in the erstwhile Palo Alto Times in October 1971. The problems would have remained if it hadn't been for the persistent lobbying, based on the series, of a determined resident: the late Joseph "Joe" Carleton, long active in Palo Alto's Sister City organization.
There is simply no way to estimate how many lives have been saved or serious injuries prevented over the years by the trained paramedics, compared to often untrained or poorly trained ambulance crews of earlier decades, when private ambulance firms dominated the emergency-response world.
One estimate at the time was that such a program would save at least eight lives per year in Palo Alto, not counting the severe injuries (such as paralysis) caused by accident victims being treated by untrained or poorly trained ambulance crews.
Current Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel said he thinks eight lives may be a conservative estimate, as the Fire Department evolves toward being more of an emergency-medical-response service than a "fire department" in the classic sense, based on the relative number of fire versus emergency calls.
Some cities followed Palo Alto's lead, but others kept the private-ambulance model as training and services improved dramatically with the return of trained military medics from the Vietnam War. And fire departments generally upgraded emergency training of regular firefighters.
Because Palo Alto created its paramedics service as early as it did, it is one of the few services in the state allowed to transport patients to the hospital. Others were prohibited by a state law, leaving the field to ambulance firms.
As a reporter for the Palo Alto Times, just turned age 30, I covered as part of my beat a series of weekend demonstrations in downtown Palo Alto, some of them antiwar but others to protest a sound curfew on bands, an "anti-commune" ordinance and other counterculture issues -- some just to smash some windows and block traffic.
A young man I met at one of them called me one day in early 1971 and said his older brother worked for an ambulance company and was deeply concerned about the quality of the service and lack of training of attendants. We met, and his revelations were astounding. I launched six months of interviews and checking, on which the series was based. I interviewed ambulance company officials, physicians, firefighters and patients, double-sourcing anecdotes about ambulance "races" to pick up patients and an actual case of one ambulance crew who hid a competing crew's ambulance keys in the gutter -- reminiscent of the comedy movie, "Mother, Jugs and Speed" of that era.
To appreciate fully what the paramedics mean to a community, or region, one should be aware of what preceded them.
In a nutshell, the introductory article summed it up: "Despite recent significant steps to improve, the business appears to lag seriously behind other medical callings in regard to pay, training, working conditions and professionalism." That was putting it mildly, even though Santa Clara and San Mateo counties ranked second and sixth highest in quality among the state's 58 counties.
Dr. Lee Farr, then head of the state Department of Health's Bureau of Emergency Medical Service, created in 1970, said bad incidents were "not infrequent," and that he had started an "adverse incident" file to keep track of them.
The head of Stanford Hospital's Emergency Department cited serious problems with patients arriving in ambulances, from lack of proper treatment en route to cases of paralysis from being improperly lifted or handled.
Palo Alto fire trucks regularly dropped firefighters off at intersections so they could guide inexperienced or lost ambulance crews to the scene of an emergency.
One source was particularly close to me -- Marge Speidel, then editor of the business pages at the Times, who sat next to me. One weekend she fell from her horse along Alpine Road and broke a hip. En route to Stanford Hospital, she noted the ambulance had turned the wrong way on Junipero Serra and was heading south, not toward the hospital, and directed them from the back of the ambulance.
The core of the problem was low pay, long hours and inadequate state laws covering minimum training requirements. One law only required an ambulance crew member to obtain an advanced First Aid certificate within three months of starting work for an ambulance firm.
But a frequent occurrence was that instead of getting the required certificate, the individual would simply quit before the three months was up and go to work for another ambulance firm -- a kind of "musical-chairs" pattern among the typically younger, single men in the crews.
The series concluded with articles on the changing role of ambulances and calls for better integration of care. Ambulance companies were changing priorities, from just getting patients to a hospital as fast as possible to becoming increasingly high-tech "emergency rooms on wheels," traveling slower but stabilizing and even treating patients en route.
Yet paramedics filled a desperate need for better trained, more stable emergency responders to become a literally life-saving service.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.