- Historic Sites
TODAY NEARLY HALF a million men and women serve two-thirds of the country in a crucial volunteer service that began only recently—and only because a nine-year-old boy witnessed a drowning
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
Civilian ambulance service began in large cities in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1865 Cincinnati’s Commercial Hospital established what was probably the first regular ambulance operation in the United States. Most large cities developed some semblance of organized ambulance service in the years before World War I. Chicago saw the first motorized ambulance in 1899, with St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City introducing electric vehicles a year later. An electric ambulance with hard rubber tires carried President McKinley to Buffalo’s Exhibition Hospital after an anarchist shot him at the Pan-American Exhibition’s Temple of Music in 1901.
In many communities undertakers possessed the only vehicles capable of carrying recumbent patients. They dominated the ambulance business for decades, usually charging only a few dollars for a ride to a hospital or doctor’s office. For many of them ambulance service was a way to build goodwill, with an eye to the more lucrative funeral business down the road. Some undertakers maintained actual ambulances; others merely used hearses modified to accept a stretcher. Even Julian Wise’s resourceful Roanoke squad deferred to the city’s undertakers until 1959, when the volunteers began to provide transport as well as first aid.
For fifty years after World War I ambulance and hearse manufacture were closely associated. Ambulances of the 1920s often featured leadedglass windows and stained mahogany interiors. Styles and horsepower changed over the years, but the basic form of the ambulance as an enlarged passenger car on a limousine frame remained constant. “Those ambulances had the advantage of comfort, speed, drivability, and a low center of gravity,” says Myron Gitell, an ambulance collector and the publisher of a history called The Ambulance . “They didn’t have that much room in back, but in those days patients rarely received any treatment on the way to the hospital anyway.”
By 1940 the Roanoke squad had fifty-eight members and could deploy a carbon monoxide detector, field telephones, an acetylene torch, and portable floodlights. That same year the first of several serious polio epidemics hit Roanoke. The volunteers arranged for the purchase of iron lungs, 750-pound tanks that used negative air pressure to breathe for paralyzed patients. During the 1944 epidemic, which involved more than 750 cases, area rescue squads supplied twenty-one iron lungs. Julian Wise set up a statewide training program on how to use the unwieldy devices.
The rescue-squad movement continued to spread. When the Hindenburg exploded in 1937, the New Jersey First Aid Council was able to summon twenty-nine ambulances to the scene in Lakehurst. A 1945 Reader’s Digest article featured Wise and his crew, with the subtitle “An Idea for Your Town.” That piece and a followup article eleven years later boosted interest in rescue squads around the country. Wise did his bit, helping to form 25 squads in Virginia alone and advising volunteers from Michigan to Alabama as well as in Canada and Europe. He would phone squad captains across his state monthly just to find out how things were going. By 1956 twenty-six thousand members were participating in 850 squads around the world. “The credit goes to the crews,” Wise insisted. “I was only the pusher.”
Many squads were associated with volunteer fire departments. During the 1920s fire departments in New Jersey and Texas pioneered efforts to add rescue and first-aid capabilities. Legion posts were another common sponsor of squads. Charles Myers remembers when his group of veterans in the little upstate New York town of Eldred started an ambulance service in 1948. “We handed out cards with our phone numbers on them. When someone had an emergency, they called until they reached a member who was home. That member called the others, and off we went. I still get calls; people have those old cards tacked on the wall.” Myers has served nearly fifty years with his squad.
In Roanoke I spent some time with the volunteers who carry on the tradition of Julian Wise’s original crew. The excitement of riding in a speeding ambulance, with lights flashing and the siren screaming a passage through traffic, is very real. One young emergency medical technician (EMT) told me she joined the squad “for the adrenaline rush and to be in the middle of the action.” Certainly there is an element of “trauma junkie” in most volunteers, who are eager to go out on a “good” call—one involving sufficient life-and-death mayhem.
But the reality of the calls is often very different. Tonight in one of Roanoke’s poorer neighborhoods an old lady has fallen in her home; she needs to go to the hospital to be checked out. Pulse seventy-four and regular. On the wall, a framed Mother’s Day card. Patient is awake and oriented. A needlepoint sampler: “What is life without love?” Blood pressure 150 over 80. The stretcher is wheeled in. A quiet ride to the hospital.