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Endlessly Persistent: The Story of America's First Female Paramedics

When the first American cities began establishing EMS systems 50 years ago, most started with their fire departments. Portland, Oregon, took a different path. Local leaders there let private ambulance services take the lead.

Supported by progressive physicians, crews from companies like A.A., Buck, and Care Ambulance were empowered to deliver care that was among the most innovative anywhere. Innovation had a history in Portland: Buck cars had carried oxygen for workers in World War II shipyards and had two-way radios as early as 1948.

Then in 1969, cardiologist Leonard Rose joined with Buck in a plan to turn ambulance attendants into cardiac technicians. Under the Oregon Coronary Ambulance Project, they trained and equipped ambulance personnel to interpret ECGs and perform CPR and defibrillation in the field. These and other unique skills were what distinguished America’s first paramedics.

Portland wasn’t the only place that had paramedics – but it was the only one where some of them were women. The private ambulance companies offered a more diverse and relatively more welcoming environment than most women found in the fire service in the 1970s. This helped produce among the first female paramedics in America.

In time Buck, Care, and A.A. Ambulance became part of American Medical Response. And when Multnomah County ultimately went to a single ambulance provider in the 1990s, the advanced integration of women in its EMS workforce helped AMR win the contract.

AMR remains the county’s exclusive ambulance provider today.

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