Ambulance Days   no comments

Posted at 7:01 pm in EMS

I wrote this article in 2011 as a contribution to the newsletter of the Public Safety Writers Association. During a discussion on the PSWA listserv, it turned out that I had worked in EMS at the same time and in the same general area as some of our members. Below is the article I wrote about that time, and some photos from the same early 1970s era.

Like many of you, I put myself through college. I washed dishes, ran tests in a veterinary medical lab, and worked the counter at a convenience store chain. That job provided inspiration for my law enforcement career. After being shot at three times in the space of less than a year, I wanted a job where I could shoot back. By far, the most memorable of my college jobs was as an ambulance jockey, an EMT, on private ambulance services around the San Francisco Bay Area. If you want some insight into what it was like to work on an ambulance in those days, get a movie called Mother, Jugs and Speed. The film depicts the lives of employees of the fictional F&B Ambulance Service in Los Angeles.

Your author, age 21, in 1974.

Your author, age 21, in 1974.

The outfits I worked for weren’t nearly as professionally run as F&B. The one that was most memorable was in San Mateo, CA–Silva’s Ambulance. The ambulances were pink, because that was the owner’s wife’s favorite color. Pink bed linen, and when I got there, they were just moving away from pink shirts, as they were too difficult to find. Bob Silva never bought a new ambulance. They were all used Cadillacs, as he believed a used Cadillac was much classier than a new van-type that actually ran. I was taking a woman in labor to a hospital in San Francisco when the tranny gave up the ghost in Hunter’s Point. I’d told Bob the day before that it was on its last legs, and he advised that I should shut up and drive what I was given to drive. We were dead in the water, and just barely within radio range to call for another rig to take our patient.

The county came out with some new regs for gear that had to be on the rig, and one requirement was an obstetrics kit. Pre-packaged OB kits from Dyna-Med were $7.50 each. Silva bought one. He put it on a rig, sent it to be inspected, then brought that one back and put the same kit on the next rig to be inspected. When it was finally left in the rig he usually drove, he wrapped it in strapping tape to discourage anyone from actually using it. It wasn’t like we didn’t need OB kits. I delivered three babies while I worked there.

The electronic sirens we’re so used to now were just coming into widespread use in the 1970s. Most of our ambulances were equipped with mechanical sirens that wound up slowly when activated. They had brakes on them, and if you forgot to brake the siren before you left the rig, it would take a minute or more to wind down, growling the whole time. The big daddy of these mechanical sirens was the Federal Q2. Some of these are still in use on fire engines. The Q2 is a massive thing, and drew so much power that the engine would knock when you leaned on the button too long—the spark plugs didn’t get enough voltage. Few man-made things are as loud as a Q2. One day, while en route back to the station with a new attendant, I stopped at a Safeway for some groceries. I left the attendant in the rig, telling him to tap the siren if we got a call. When the call came in, he didn’t tap on the horn ring that activated the siren—he held it down. The ambulance was parked facing the store and its large plate glass windows. I heard the siren, then heard the window start to reverberate in its frame as it resonated with the blast of sonic waves—“whap-whap-whap-whapwhapWhapWhapWHAPWHAPWHAP.” I made it back to the rig, screaming ineffectively, before the window shattered.

Between the mechanical siren, separate heater for the rear compartment, more blinking lights than a Vegas casino, etc., the ambulances needed a lot of electrical power. A single battery would be dead before you got to the hospital, so most ambulances had two car batteries, cross-connected via a big rotary Cole-Hersee switch. The switch, which looked a little like the access cover to your house’s sewer cleanout pipe, had four positions: Battery One, Battery Two, Both, and Off. “Both” was the usual setting, but when the rig was parked, it was common to switch it to “Off,” so the batteries wouldn’t be drained if you had forgotten to turn something off. This effectively disconnected the batteries from the rest of the rig. If you wanted to have some fun with another crew, you could turn everything in their rig on, but leave the Cole-Hersee switch off. When they turned it back on, hilarity would ensue.

The gear we had in these ambulances was very basic, and most of us purchased and brought our own equipment to work, rather than provide inferior care for our patients. I bought my own stethoscope and sphygmomanometer (blood pressure cuff), chemical cold packs, wire ladder splints, ammonia “wake up gizmo” ampules, etc. Consumable supplies, such as self-adhering Kerlix bandages and waterproof tape, were stolen from the hospitals. The bandages we had on board, furnished by the company, were made of crumbling linen material from the Korean War era. Oropharyngeal airways were supposed to be either used once and discarded, or autoclaved between patients, but we had neither replacement airways or an autoclave, so we wiped them clean with alcohol and hoped for the best.

Our suction apparatus was powered through the engine’s vacuum manifold. Suction power went to zero when the engine was accelerating. If you were trying to clear gunk from a patient’s airway while your driver was flooring it, you’d tell him to coast until you had made some progress.

We weren’t allowed to say someone was dead, even if the flesh was falling from their bones. Law enforcement officers could make that determination, but doing so meant they would have to remain at the scene until the coroner arrived, which could take hours. This being the case, many officers chose to see some glimmer of life in corpses long past resurrection. We responded to an “11-80” (traffic accident with serious injuries) attended by a member of the California Highway Patrol to find a pickup truck that had rolled over with an unfortunate passenger in the back. The passenger had not quite been decapitated, as his head was hanging by a few strips of flesh. This was one of the more obvious dead people I had encountered, but the Chippie ordered us to run him in. Getting the body onto the gurney had the same effect achieved in kosher slaughterhouses, where the neck veins are severed and the blood is allowed to drain from the carcass. By the time we got to the hospital, the floor of the rear compartment was literally awash in blood, with it sloshing over my boots. I called the office and told them we would be out of service for a while.

This pre-dated the AIDS scare, and even though hepatitis and other bloodborne pathogens were just as nasty then as now (and there was no vaccine), we had no latex gloves to wear. Back then, gloves were worn by medical people to protect the patient from infection. There wasn’t a lot of thought given to protecting the caregivers. I remember cleaning up after an especially gruesome call and thinking that I wasn’t just cleaning something, but rather someone, out from under my fingernails.

One case where we didn’t have to transport was at the home of an older gentleman. I never knew the circumstances that prompted the call, but we arrived a few minutes after the fire department and before the cops. As we walked up to the house, the firemen were walking out, chuckling to one another. “He’s dead!” they said with some amusement. We entered the bedroom to find an older man lying supine on top of his bed, naked. Rigor had set in, so he had been gone for some time. What the firefighters found so funny was that the man had expired while engaged in an act of self-pleasure, and still had the weapon in hand. My partner and I looked at each other and registered much the same expression the firemen had. As we walked out, the cops were just arriving. “He’s dead!” we told them. I suppose there are worse ways to go, but that’s not how I want to be found.

I ran a lot of calls at Silva’s. The shifts were 120 hours long–yes, five days straight. You got paid straight time ($2.00/hour in 1974) for the first eight hours, a guaranteed time-and-a-half for five more hours, and were unpaid for three hours of meals, whether you actually got to eat them or not. Between midnight and eight in the morning, you got overtime for the time you were actually in service on the call. If you rolled and were cancelled two minutes out–which was common–you got two minutes of overtime. I swear some of those rigs could find their own way home, because there were many nights I have no memory of having driven them there. When my days off finally arrived, I would usually sleep through at least one of them.

The full Silva’s uniform was a sartorial delight. Each time they would give me a new uniform article, it would fall to a mysteriously tragic end, so I wore a white shirt, navy blue knit slacks, and a nylon bomber jacket. If you wanted to show you were management material, the required outfit consisted of a white (formerly pink) shirt with royal blue trousers and Ike jacket. The trousers had white piping down each leg, as did the cuffs of the jacket. On each shoulder of the Ike jacket was a huge purple and gold patch, proclaiming the wearer to be employed by Silva’s Ambulance Service, the words spelled out in metallic script. One was also obliged to wear a royal blue CHP clip-on neck tie. Mandatory accessories to the ensemble included a gold metal nametag, white belt, and white leather shoes. Worn on the shirt or jacket was a shield-type gold badge, about the size of a soup plate. All the badges identified the wearers as “Technician,” except for Bob Silva’s. His said, “Owner.” There was a $20 deposit on the badge. Those who were really in with the in crowd had huge custom Western-style belt buckles with their first names spelled out diagonally, and the corners adorned with red crosses, stars of life, or tiny ambulances. However, the crowning glory accessory–and I only saw one of these–was a gold tie bar, wider than the tie itself, with a fine gold chain attached to either end of the bar. Dangling from the chain was a pink Cadillac ambulance. Its wearer was extremely proud of this, and wouldn’t tell anyone where he got it, lest someone steal his thunder.

Employee turnover was around 200% annually, and I was a prized employee because I always showed up on time and sober. I was able to work full time on school vacations and summer, and from Friday evening to early Monday morning, when I’d leave to make it to my first class at San Jose State. It wasn’t uncommon to have an employee go AWOL, and have the cops show up a day or so later, looking for them. You had to be fingerprinted to get an ambulance driver’s license, but all you needed to work as an attendant was a first aid card, which management would procure for you for a small fee.

Bob Curry, in almost the full Silva's uniform (no badge), posing with a "new" ambulance, formerly used by Allied Ambulance in Oakland.

Bob Curry, in almost the full Silva’s uniform (no badge), posing with a “new” ambulance, formerly used by Allied Ambulance in Oakland.

There was one very senior employee whose name was also Bob. Bob thought he was the manager, and would tell you he was if asked, despite advice to the contrary if one of the Silvas was listening. Bob was very possessive of “his” ambulance, which was always the newest one (given that they were all used, “new” was a relative term). One night, I had just come in to work, and a call came in. The dispatcher told me to take it, so I grabbed an attendant and got in the first rig I saw. It was Bob’s, of course. When I returned, Bob screamed my face, lest I forget that that particular rig was HIS ambulance, and I had better stay the hell out of it if I knew what was good for me. Bob had an apartment near the main station, so he didn’t have to sleep at the station when he was on duty. If you were Bob’s attendant (Bob never worked in the back unless there was some real hero stuff going on), you were allowed to drive Bob’s ambulance to his place, where you switched seats. That night, a co-conspirator and I did a little customizing to Bob’s rig. When he got in the next morning, he found the handle on the driver’s door adorned with some adhesive tape, reading “Bob’s Door Handle.” Inside, more tape indicated Bob’s Steering Wheel, Bob’s Cigarette Lighter, Bob’s Gearshift, Bob’s Turn Indicator, Bob’s Accelerator, Bob’s Radio, Bob’s Other Radio, and so on. Tucked under Bob’s Sun Visor was a card on a little string, trimmed to drop to eye level: “Hi, Bob.”

Silva’s didn’t have the market cornered on odd employees. A rival company employed a guy we called Captain Action. Captain Action worked for a company that had more traditional uniforms, but still included a badge. The issued badge wasn’t up to Captain Action’s high standards. He had his own badge made up. It was a thing of beauty. It was a gold seven-point star (the most common style of police badge in those parts), but much larger than most police badges. It put the Silva’s badge to shame on size alone. I remember it had a big California State Seal in the middle, and a lot of text on the banners and inner ring. There was so much lettering on the badge that I never got to finish reading it, although I saw it often. Captain Action also wore a police-style Sam Browne belt with various snaps and cases, including a cuff case, handcuffs, and a baton ring. I never saw a baton, but I’m sure he had it around somewhere.

Captain Action loved to talk on the radio. Each ambulance had two radios, one on the company channel, and one that broadcasted on a shared, county-wide channel, called County Control. There was no direct channel to the hospitals, so one was obliged to tell County Control what you had and where you were bringing it, so the dispatcher could give the appropriate ER the heads up. An appropriate message might be something like, “County Control, Ambulance 3335, en route Code 3 to Peninsula Medical with an unconscious head injury.” Captain Action preferred to be somewhat more detailed, and made liberal use of the phonetic alphabet. “County Control, Ambulance 3330, en route Peninsula Medical Center with a 33-year-old white male with a history of cardiac myopathy, I spell CHARLES-ADAM-ROBERT-DAVID-IDA-ADAM-CHARLES-BREAK-MARY-YELLOW-OCEAN-PAUL-ADAM-TOM-HENRY-YELLOW…”

After one of these lengthy naratives (keep in mind that there were ten or twelve other ambulances in the county that used the same channel), the dispatcher was oddly silent. Captain Action made another try to ensure his message made it through. “County Control, Ambulance 3330, did you copy?”


Ah, the good old days.

Written by Tim Dees on January 1st, 2015

What do police officers think about how the police department in Ferguson, MO is handling the aftermath of the Brown shooting?   no comments

Answer by Tim Dees:

I think this is a classic example of what happens when a law enforcement agency isn’t trained or prepared for an unexpected or exceptionally large event.

Ferguson is a city of 21,000 people. It’s police department has 52 sworn officers. Only three are black, when about 68% of the city’s population are black. This imbalance affects the current situation tangentially, but I doubt that it’s a problem that the City of Ferguson is unaware of or that they haven’t tried to fix it. Anytime a white police officer kills or seriously injures a minority citizen in a predominately minority community, there will be an outcry. Accusations of racism follow immediately and certainly, and the precipitating conduct that led to the incident is lost in the conversation.

There is something of a litmus test one can do to evaluate whether the motive behind an action is motivated by racism: change the ethnicities of the players. So, instead of Michael Brown, we have Michael White, a 6-5, 265 lb. Caucasian, 18 years of age. He enters a convenience store in his small community and takes a package of cigars. When the clerk tries to stop him, White grabs him and tosses him around in order to leave unencumbered. A few minutes later, White and at least one companion of the same ethnicity are walking down the middle of a public street, eschewing the sidewalk provided for pedestrians.

A uniformed police officer (he can be whatever race you want him to be–I don’t think it matters) who is of inferior physical size to White sees him and asks him and his friend to move to the sidewalk. The pair refuse. The police officer may or may not know about the strongarm robbery at the convenience store; if he knows, he is unaware that White or his companion are the perpetrators. The officer stops his car and starts to get out to confront the pair. White attacks him as he tries to exit the vehicle, and attempts to disarm the officer. The officer retains control of his firearm and shoots White, who is unarmed. Would the white citizens–or, for that matter, the black, brown, or green citizens–demonstrate, hold rallies and vigils, and ultimately burn and loot the town in protest? I’m unaware of this ever happening.

Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, is described as “tall and slender” in the stories I’ve read. He looks to be about six feet tall and around 180 lbs., although this is only a gross estimate based on a few photos of him I have seen on the web. I’m a fairly big guy. When I was working the street, I was 6-2 and around 210 lbs. Had I been attacked by an 18-year-old of Brown’s size who tried to get control of my sidearm, I would probably have shot him, or tried, too.

When you’re fighting with someone who outmatches you physically and has moved in too close for a TASER or impact weapon, you don’t have many options left if you want to go home that day. Race is irrelevant, at least from the perspective of the officer. I’ve heard the argument that walking down the middle of the street, or even doing a robbery of a store, doesn’t justify the use of deadly force. No, it doesn’t. But attacking a police officer and trying to disarm him does quite possibly justify the use of deadly force. The decision to do that was solely Michael Brown’s. Had he paid for his cigars and walked on the sidewalk (not especially arduous requirements, IMHO), he would likely still be going to technical school next month, and most of us would still have never heard of Ferguson.

The Ferguson PD now has to contend with civil unrest, the likes of which they have never seen before. If they are like most PDs of that size, they have little training in public order incidents. Still, they don’t have the option of boarding up the police station and hiding inside while people are gathering in a hostile way. They responded the only way they knew how, in tactical gear that offered the best protection for their officers. The basic police uniform doesn’t provide all that much protection from threats to the wearer. Most cops wear body armor that will stop a handgun bullet, but it doesn’t help if you get hit in the roughly 70% of the body that is not protected by the armor. It will offer some very limited protection against thrown missiles like rocks and bottles, but none against Molotov cocktails. If you get hit with a rock in your head, knee, or elbow, you’re likely going down.

Tactical gear often includes knee and elbow pads, more coverage with body armor, a helmet, and possibly goggles. If I had been going out to police a hostile crowd, I’d have every piece of gear like that I could carry. Some officers–most of the ones I saw were from the county police department–were armed with rifles. One photo I’ve seen run repeatedly shows a helmeted officer with a sniper rifle on a bipod, and the officer appears to be perched on top of a tactical vehicle. People may find this offensive, but there is sound tactical doctrine for this. If someone fires a gun from inside or around a crowd, they are very difficult to identify. Pursuit, if you know who to pursue,  is even more difficult, as the members of the crowd will likely be panicking and stampeding.

The sniper, with his high observation point, the protection of the tactical vehicle, a magnifying scope, and a rifle capable of placing a bullet far away with precision, can spot and eliminate such a shooter far more effectively than an officer on the ground can.

The tactical vehicles may also be off-putting, but they offer the occupants protection from bullets, thrown objects, and improvised fire bombs, all of which were a factor in this situation. If the tires are shot out or flattened by nails, they often have run-flat tires that will allow the vehicle to keep moving. A patrol car offers far less protection, and anti-police crowds seem to delight in setting fire to and overturning police cars that are vacant or abandoned. A 52-man police department isn’t going to have a lot of spare cars.

The PD stepped up their posture when there was arson and looting of city businesses the night after the shooting. Burning down and stealing from the businesses that serve your community does absolutely nothing to advance whatever cause of justice you’re allegedly seeking to achieve. The people who do this are thieves and hoodlums, plain and simple. They take advantage of overwhelmed law enforcement services to commit their crimes unimpeded. Some people seem to like to describe the actions of these criminals as a morally justified response to the racist genocide of their own by the ruling class. Bullshit. These are just cowardly criminals who are going to steal or destroy anything they can get their hands on because they like to steal and destroy things. If they could get away with it at any other time, they would do it, then, too.

When the Missouri governor ordered the Ferguson PD to stand down and turned over handling of the incident to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, critics of the FPD noted that the more relaxed approach was reducing the level of violence and confrontation in the wake of the more fascist tactics of the FPD. This lovefest lasted less than 24 hours, until the sun went down and the looting and arson resumed. There would have been a lot more of this, but by then many business owners were standing guard with personally-owned firearms. I don’t blame them a bit for doing this (in their situation, I would be doing the same thing), but do you think a looter or arsonist is going to get a better shake from a personally-invested businessman whose expertise is with selling hardware or cutting meat, or a trained police officer?

The arrests of journalists and people who were doing no more than recording what they saw on a public street were wrong, plain and simple. The cops should and probably do know better. I don’t excuse their behavior, but I do understand it in part. When you’re seeing the town you’re supposed to police coming down around you, you feel like you need to do something, even if the “something” is ill-advised. It’s a siege mentality brought about by stress and frustration. Better and more intensive supervision would have deterred this sort of behavior, but my guess is that FPD had every cop they could find deployed on the street, and there weren’t enough effective supervisors to keep track of them all. My friend, risk management expert and retired CHP captain Gordon Graham, likes to say that most police misconduct cases can be traced to ineffective supervision.

Once again, the FPD was overwhelmed. So, if this situation was so out of their depth, why didn’t the FPD just call for help from the start? Because tradition and standard practice say you try and handle what comes to you before you call for help. This got out of control faster than the FPD could recognize and react to it. They did have the assistance of the St. Louis County Police Department and some state troopers drawn from local stations, but wasn’t able to coordinate and control those bodies sufficiently to keep this situation from growing more serious. I don’t know if they had ever trained or planned for this kind of coordinated operation before. If they’re like most police agencies in the United States, they haven’t. There is a limited amount of time and money for training, and you tend to address the problems you already have, not the ones you might have someday.

Would this situation have taken place if the racial makeup of the FPD more closely reflected that of the community? Maybe, but that’s a difficult goal. Police departments around the country are having difficulty recruiting new officers of any race. Only about 20% of Americans ages 18-25 are eligible for military service. The rest are rejected for reasons of obesity or just poor physical conditioning, criminal records, driving history, recent drug use, or poor credit. Police service is more restrictive than the military, but someone who can’t qualify for the military isn’t likely to qualify to be a police officer, either. By age 30-34, 3.2% of white men have been in prison, where 22.4% of black men have (Race, Criminal Background, and Employment). In Missouri, 56% of black men graduate from high school, where 81% of white men do (National Table Data). 27% of white Americans have poor credit records, where 48% of blacks do (Study: African-Americans More Likely to Have Bad Credit | The reasons for this are an entirely separate debate, but it boils down to there being substantially fewer black men than white men who are qualified to be police officers. Of the black applicants who are qualified for police service, they usually have many better and more lucrative options. Many businesses and colleges actively recruit high-achieving minorities, enticing them with management training programs and full-ride scholarships. If I was a young man offered a choice of a professional career in engineering, medicine, or business or being a police officer, both with all training and education costs paid, it would be pretty tough to take the cop route.

Now and then, law enforcement agencies decide their need for minority officers or supervisors is so great that they lower the bar for minority applicants. This has had disastrous consequences in every instance of which I am aware. You need the best person you can get, not just the best [race or ethnicity] you can get, to be your cops and supervisors. To summarize: I think the Ferguson PD just got slammed with an event that was beyond their capacity to handle. The people of Ferguson could have responded to the shooting with peaceful protests and demonstrations, and I suspect most of them intended to do exactly that. But a relatively small number decided to respond with violence, and the FPD wasn’t trained or equipped to deal with it. What do police officers think about how the police department in Ferguson, MO is handling the aftermath of the Brown shooting?

Written by Tim Dees on August 17th, 2014

Is it right to body slam and arrest a professor for Jaywalking around the construction zone near the university?   no comments

Posted at 4:57 pm in Uncategorized

Answer by Tim Dees:

The requirement to carry identification was ruled unconstitutional in the decision for Kolender v. Lawson, over 30 years ago. Arizona may have some workaround law that the officer was making reference to, or the officer may have been bluffing. Personally, I'd be interested in reading the statute he was referencing (and that the professor was supposedly charged with violating).

The officer does mention she was walking "on a public thoroughfare." There may be a requirement to carry identification when you are walking in the street, as opposed to a sidewalk intended for foot traffic. I'm speculating here; I know close to nothing about Arizona law.

One question I'd have, and that was not answered in the news report or video, is whether there was a designated foot path around the construction. At most construction zones where the sidewalk is obstructed, there is a prescribed alternate foot path for pedestrians. Did the professor walk into the street because she found the alternate route (if there was one) inconvenient?

She tells the cop something like, "Everyone is doing it," [walking in the street]. "Everyone is doing it" is not a valid defense. If everyone is looting the stores in a neighborhood, that's not going to help you if you're the one the cops manage to catch doing it.

As for the officer's use of force: yes, it was justified, providing he stopped her for a legitimate violation of the law (as I mentioned above, I'm not clear this was the case). If a police officer tells you to stop, you had best stop. If you don't, he's going to use force to make you stop, and he will escalate that to whatever level he needs to in order to effect the stop (which, by this time, will be an arrest, even if it wasn't before). Police officers are not going to allow you to defy them and walk away smirking. To put this in a different context, say an officer pulls you over for suspected drunk driving, and when the officer asks them to step out of the car, you say, "I don't think so. Bye." and he drives off. The cop isn't going to say, "Guess he showed me," and resume patrol. He's going to pursue you, call as many other cops as might be necessary to assist him, use tire deflation devices to disable your car if he needs to, and otherwise will do everything he can to take you into custody. By this time, the charges will be a lot more serious than simple DUI.

The cop could have been more diplomatic, but the professor was clearly not going to submit herself to the officer's authority. This is a pretty common reaction from college professors, particularly those in the liberal arts. They often do not like cops, and will make any confrontation a Battle Royal if they can manage it. University cops generally know this, but they don't always recognize professors and staff. It shouldn't matter, as everyone is bound to obey the same laws, but some people put themselves above such things.

I've said this before: if you don't like what a cop is doing or saying to you, make a complaint, and/or contest the action in court. Do not defy or physically resist the cop, because he is going to escalate the level of force used, and 99% of the time, he's going to win. The professor could have taken her ticket or warning, and then made a complaint about the officer the next day at the police station. I imagine she was aware that the campus police have dash cam recorders, so there would be an impartial record of what happened. As it is, she fought with the cops, lost the fight, got arrested and jailed, and now has to defend herself in court. Her complaint is going to have that much less credibility.

View Answer on Quora

Written by Tim Dees on June 28th, 2014