The ring tone I use on my cell phone at present is one that never fails to attract attention. Some don’t recognize it, and from those people I generally get either a blank stare or an annoyed glare. More often, though, the sound will bring back a memory, and I’ll see an amused smile.
The ring sound is a sequence of multi-frequency tones, followed by a very loud buzzer. Those who smile recognize it as the set of SCU tones (LPHK for trivia mavens) that heralded the dispatch of squad 51, the unit manned by Firefighter/Paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto on the 1970s TV series, “Emergency!”
The principal cast of “Emergency!” From left to right, Kevin Tighe as FF/PM Roy DeSoto, Robert Fuller as Dr. Kelly Brackett, Julie London as Dixie McCall, Bobby Troup as Dr. Joe Early, and Randolph Mantooth as FF/PM John Gage.
I was recently asked what it was that caused me, so many years ago, to train as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). It’s a long story, but I am forced to admit that a great deal of the motivation came from this one television program. Paramedics were the ultimate heroes to me. They performed daring rescues, had all the great tools, and could bring near-dead people right back to life.
In 1970s Virginia, EMS (Emergency Medical Services) was in its infancy. Most pre-hospital care was given by volunteer “rescue squads,” who also transported patients to hospitals. Ambulance services and EMT/Paramedic services were not separate as they were in the system Los Angeles used. No dedicated, paid EMS people existed in my hometown.
The system in place where I grew up was both good and bad. The upside was that with the proper training and sufficient dedication and skill, anyone could become a volunteer EMT. The downside was that acquiring that knowledge and skill was so demanding of time and energy that few — too few — could manage it due to the responsibilities of work and family. I wasn’t even sure I could manage the training, having earned some subterranean grades in high school, but I wanted to try. All I needed was a little push.
The push came at age 16, when friend Scott Parker told me about the cadet program of the Civil Air Patrol. An auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, the CAP had a rather exciting set of missions that included search and rescue, radiological monitoring, reconnaissance, aerospace education, and the aforementioned cadet program. Joining the CAP was the start of several big adventures for me.
I learned to fly at a CAP solo encampment, and made my first takeoffs and landings at an old airfield called West Point Airport in eastern Virginia. My instructor, a wild but brilliant naval aviator named St. Elmo “Buz” Massengale, often punctuated his more urgent corrections with blows from his roll-up fishing hat, in a sense proving the efficacy of corporal punishment.
I also learned a lot of what I know about efficient, orderly communication from my days as a CAP radio operator. I manned the radio van or the comm station at many real CAP search missions, and my proficiency grew to the level where I was often left alone to handle communications for fairly long stretches. The real demand on search missions, I was told, was for qualified, trained ground team members.
Of course, knowing that, I immediately wanted to learn ground search and rescue skills, and my attention turned from airplanes and radios to topographic maps, compasses, navigation, terrain, rescue climbing and rappelling skills, and of course, first aid. I was taught SAR skills by some amazing people, many of whom I’ve not seen or heard from since. Keith Conover, Betty Thomas, Fritz Franke, Chris Stubbs, and Biff Franks are some of the names I can remember. When the opportunity came to take a free EMT course through the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, I jumped at it, because EMTs were sorely needed whether the object of the search was a downed aircraft, an injured climber, or just a wandering nursing home patient.
The lead instructor for my course was a silver-haired gentleman named Bobby. It’s probably good that I can’t remember his surname, because if I wrote it here, he might find it and discover how secretly amused I was at his various malapropisms. Aside from the occasional snicker over something like “mechignism of injury,” his teaching never failed to leave me enriched and enlightened. The real-life stories he included from his years of service with the squad helped make every lesson a practical one.
EMT-Basic certification consisted of 120 hours of training, and the CARS course (then as now) was crammed into a single semester. That meant that classes were 3 hours per night, two nights per week, for about five months. Students were allowed to miss no more than two of those sessions, and those for no reason other than illness or incapacitation. I didn’t miss a single one. I was an information sponge! I found the training not to be grueling or boring, as I’d expected, but to be great fun! I breezed through every quiz, studied the text, and practiced my practical skills on every gullible soul I could coerce into sitting still long enough. Resusci-Anne became my steady date.
The night of the exam, I was frightened out of my wits. There were so many ways to screw up! The written and practical tests remain a blur to me; I expended so much mental energy trying to get everything right, I devoted none to actually committing the events to memory. I do remember demonstrating taking a carotid pulse to the nurse-examiner, and accidentally applying bilateral pressure, a minor mistake that wouldn’t have failed me but which was so horrifying to me that I remember it to this day. I passed the exam and drove home at nearly 11:00 PM, far too keyed up to sleep or even rest. I remember drinking a glass of Chivas Regal (from a bottle gifted to me by friend and former teacher Tom Bibb) to settle my nerves. I hadn’t discovered single-malt Scotch then, but the Chivas sure was good that night.
After running shifts with a couple of local rescue squads and finding that I enjoyed the work immensely, I continued my training and eventually arrived at the EMT-CT level of certification (That certification no longer exists, but was essentially equivalent to what today would be called an EMT-I/85). CT stood for Cardiac Tech — I learned to read EKGs, use a defibrillator, start IVs, use various airways, perform endotracheal intubation, and deliver other advanced life support care. CT’s worked under medical control under the direction of a physician at the hospital’s base station. It was truly exciting work — at times rewarding when we successfully saved a life, and at times crushing when we were unable to do so. The long, slow shifts could be excruciatingly boring; the long, busy shifts could strenuously test one’s endurance.
Career changes eventually ended my days as an EMT. First I took on the role of Chief Engineer for a pair of local radio stations, and found that spare time was something I would have very little of in the months to come. Finding sufficient time to sleep was enough of a challenge. Eventually I dwindled my shifts at the rescue squads down to none at all.
Finally, in 1991 I found myself moving to Florida, at first for school and then to work. Neither of those provided much time for the necessary training and testing it would take to transfer my EMT certification to Florida. My certification lapsed. I used the skills I learned many times over the next few years, at times when I came upon accidents, injuries, or illnesses where I was in a position to help, but I never again held certification.
Only recently have I begun to consider starting that entire process over again and seeking EMT certification again. Here in New Bern (Mayberry), there are volunteer fire departments and rescue squads who are in need of EMTs, and one of these days I will bite the bullet and enroll in a basic EMT course. Allison has said she might even join me. After all, she likes watching “Emergency” reruns with me!