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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.

Comments

Submitted byaaustin@herotrng.com on 04/02/2020

Listening to these ladies brings back more memories than I can sift through. All of my career, I have kept quiet because that was the only way you could survive in a man's world. I started in Southern Illinois as an EMT and assumed I would never get hired. My first application was thrown in my face and I was ordered out of the Ambulance Service owner's office. The comment was: 'We don't hire any damn women. They are a liability.'

Shortly thereafter we moved to Atlanta, GA and as luck would have it, the fire department was looking for women to hire. I was the second one to be hired. This was in about 1981-82. Death threats, sexual harassment to the point of being physically assaulted, and ordered off of scenes because of my gender. I did not even weigh enough to donate blood, yet I was expected to lift the 150' dummy and carry it a 100 feet every year. Just as I was to lift and carry the large patients without assistance. I was the first female to become pregnant in 1984, and was ordered to quit. I refused. I was in my 6-7th month before I won a spot for light duty. My mother always said, "When they knock you down in life, you get back up fighting.' I will never regret the chaos or those I was privileged to work with who molded me into the medic I became. Good or bad ones. Some made me competent and others gave me the determination to prove them wrong. Still here, Boys. Kudos to the women in the film. As the song says, 'I am woman, hear me roar."

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