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From “First Aid” to Paramedics in Just 31 Years

If you had a medical emergency in 1948, the town’s brand new ambulance, “First Aid No. 1”, could transport you to the hospital. But, by 1979, it was a whole new ball game.

In 1948, Western Springs residents conducted a scrap drive and other fund-raisers that led to the purchase of the fire department’s first ambulance. And, quite an ambulance it was:  a brand-new white Cadillac, labeled “First Aid No. 1” with an on-board oxygen tank and a “pulmotor” device for artificial respiration.

In 1972, the fire department adopted the State Emergency Medical Technician program and began training its personnel as EMT’s. And, while they now had better medical training and a more modern ambulance, they were still not allowed to administer drugs or use a defibrillator. Nor did they have the ability to converse with our local hospitals’ emergency rooms.

By 1977, paramedic programs were starting to develop across the United States, especially in larger cities. But not in most cash-strapped suburbs. For example, La Grange, La Grange Park, Brookfield, Hinsdale, and Western Springs were all discussing how to implement such service for their residents, including joint programs between multiple villages. However, due to the potential conflict with existing emergency personnel, the high cost of required training, higher paramedic salaries, insurance concerns, and the need for new equipment, little progress was being made. 

This changed in 1978 when our town’s volunteer fire department took the initiative and proposed having all of its Emergency Medical Technicians be trained as paramedics. The proposal also involved hiring one full-time paramedic to be on duty during the normal work day when volunteers might not be able to respond immediately.

In response to this proposal, the village responded much the same way as it did in 1948 when it helped purchase the first ambulance.  For example, the Western Springs Rotary Club stepped up to the plate and donated $4,000 toward the $25,000 needed to start the program. Soon, other groups joined in, including the Junior Women’s League, the Coterie Club, the League of Women Voters, the Ridgewood Association, and St. John of the Cross Church. Donations also came from both individuals and businesses.

This would cover the training for some 14 volunteer paramedics and the cost of specialized equipment, such as telemetry devices. But, the remaining cost of the program would have to be covered by the village’s general funds. 

After attending countless evening courses at Loyola Hospital, the village’s first paramedics were certified.  And, on October 6, 1979, the town’s paramedic service began, the first in the surrounding western suburbs. And, by all accounts, it was a great success. See second photo.

During the first month or so, there were 13 paramedic calls in the village. The one on November 6 came from the Allen Pederson residence, where paramedics delivered an 8 pound, 8 ounce baby boy, who just couldn’t wait to enter the world. See third photo.

Unfortunately, just days after the program began, the Village Board decided to partially recover the remaining cost of the program (some $16,000) by charging residents $60 for each ambulance call. The reaction of the service clubs and others who had contributed the required $25,000 in start-up costs was predictable. The Village Trustees listened and quickly rescinded their ill-timed ordinance.

While the program was an immediate succcess with residents, the annual cost to the village was also much higher than expected. This was partially due to the longer times being spent with patients vs. simply transporting them to the hospital. This led to a considerable debate on funding, as shown in the fourth photo. 

In response, a referendum took place on November 8, 1983 that proposed an additional tax to cover the ongoing costs of the program, including the addition of a second, full-time certified paramedic. By a vote of 1,257 to 245, village residents overwhelmingly approved the referendum, thereby insuring 24 hour paramedic coverage, which fortunately continues to this day.   

Ian Seivwright May 04, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Great article. As a side note, in late 1971, when LaGrange Hospital announced the EMT program, some of us wanted to attend but were told the Department was committed to "first aid" only. Still, the program seemed so compelling that Bill Iliffe and I attended the second class at LMH in late 1971 under the auspices of Peoples Gas where we both worked in Safety. After bringing this state of the art back to the Department, others were inspired to attend EMT training (as pushed by later to be Chief Jack Goodwin who was the next to attend). As noted in your article, the EMT program was formally adopted in 1972. Again, in 1978, after a great deal of effort in trying to get a "joint" paramedic program in place to no avail, a group of us got the OK to start a paramedic on a volunteer basis. A number of us traveled to Silver Cross Hospital in Joliet several nights a week for months to become the initial group of certified paramedics. When the program started in 1978, our Department was the first in the area to have paramedics and was initially operated on a strictly volunteer basis (80 hours a week stand-by - in town for each medic). Although we took considerable flack from some in the medical profession and nearby neighbors as being unnecessary the program was so successful that others soon followed (LaGrange/LaGrange Park was next). Eventually, paramedic response became the "state of the art" in emergency medical care throughout the country.
Darren McRoy May 04, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Thanks for the great follow-up, Ian! How's retirement treating ya?
Ian Seivwright May 07, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Doing well. Appreciate being able to get news from my "home town" while retired here in Arizona via the Patch. Keep up the good work. Ian
John Devona May 14, 2012 at 02:05 PM
Glad you enjoyed the article. While I was here in the village when the paramedic program began, I didn't realize how many obstacles there were until I started researching it. Thansk for your comments and your past serveice. John Devona
Joanna Danko May 29, 2012 at 05:43 PM
We are from Chicago, IL but were in Rochester Hills, MI this weekend and saw the first ambulance that Western Springs had. The man who owns it now travels the world with it showing it off proudly with his nurse wife at all the cars shows.

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