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County paramedic program marks 50 years

LOS ANGELES — Andre Raya went jogging on a cold night before his heart almost stopped. Though Raya reached his home after exercising in the Fairfax District, a tickling sensation nauseated him.    

Raya brushed off the symptoms, took a shower and went to bed. The next day he grabbed a hamburger from Johnny Rockets near Cedars Sinai Medical Center and almost immediately felt an irregular heartbeat.

A captain and registered paramedic with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Raya knew what the symptoms meant.  Driving en route to a clinic to get a cardiac checkup, Raya went into cardiac arrest. Paramedics were summoned to save his life. 

“I felt like a fish out of the water,” Raya told an audience at the Fire Museum in Bellflower March 21 as the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services celebrated its 50th anniversary, describing his own experience with the emergency service system.

The gathering honored pioneer firefighters, paramedics and doctors involved in the medical and technological development of the program, with techniques and life-saving strategies often learned on the streets of Los Angeles curing patients, from toddlers to senior citizens.

Raya eventually underwent triple bypass surgery. He credited paramedics for saving his life.

“It’s very eye opening to be a patient and see how EMS works in the county,” he said. 

The banquet also honored the men and women who developed the system in the 1970s, following the passage of the Wedworth-Townsend Paramedic Act, and paid homage to the crucial lobbying exercised by former county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn to convince California Gov. Ronald Reagan of the need for paramedics to administer ambulatory medicine. 

Reagan initially threatened to veto state legislation, which prompted Hahn to travel to the state’s Capitol to coax him about the social benefits of the measure.

The act permitted ambulances to cross municipal boundaries within the county to intervene on the spot patients with intravenous lines, apply defibrillators and rush patients to emergency hospitals without concerns about malpractice suits or crossing jurisdictions. 

“We refused to sell to the status quo,” said current county Supervisor Janice Hahn, Kenneth Hahn’s daughter. “Cause leaders like my father led us to believe what we can do, and the world can do. It’s hard to believe, but only 50 years ago the idea of paramedics treating patients in route to the hospital was groundbreaking. Since my father helped establish the first emergency medical services agency in the nation right here in L.A. County, the idea has gone mainstream.”

She pledged to get more funds to improve emergency medical services infrastructure, training of professionals and keep up with the latest medical technology.

The event program said Reagan signed the legislation on July 14, 1970 to avert lethal situations similar to his father’s, who died of a heart attack after the ambulance refused to take him to a hospital away from its city boundaries.  

Tony Imbrenda, public relations officer for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said the agency receives more than 1,100 emergency calls a day for medical issues ranging from sprained ankles to cardiovascular emergencies. 

All first-call respondents are trained and equipped with the latest technology to attend residents with the most serious cases, including strokes, trauma and other injuries, Imbrenda said. 

“We definitely have one of the best paramedic systems in the world,” he said.

Cathy Chidester, the county’s emergency medical services director, said that 650,000 emergency calls are logged a year and 72 hospitals are equipped to receive 911 emergencies. 

She added that emergency medical services has a roster of 35,000 uniformed first respondents, including those of the city of Los Angeles and firefighters employed by all municipalities within the county.

Museum president and county firefighter Paul Schneider said all hospitals in the county are aligned with the 911 system, and thanked the county Board of Supervisors for its financial support. 

The idea of holding the 50th anniversary celebration started three years ago, he said, and the gathering recognized the determined labor of all involved. 

“When I look at our audience, I see this is a culmination of many years of work,” Schneider said. “You have to have a sense of compassion to do this work.”

He credited the 1970s TV show “Emergency” as an inspiring platform for counties across the nation to borrow the local model and implement their own systems to answer a growing need for emergency care. 

Keynote speaker and actor Kevin Tighe, who played paramedic Roy DeSoto in the prime-time NBC show, said he portrayed scenes borrowed from real life when he served as station guard on weekends, sometimes without getting paid. 

“Paramedics kept our show running and our camera on,” Tighe said. 

Universal Studios donated the 1972 Dodge engine “Squad 51” used in the show to the county Fire Department, and after retirement the unit landed in the fire museum, where it was restored, and embarked on a national tour in 1998. 

About 80 percent of all 911 calls relate to medical emergencies, and less than 10 percent are linked to fires, Imbrenda said. 

Emergency medical services operate under the state’s health and safety code of regulations, and title 22, a segment that governs handling and disposal of hazardous materials with toxic waste.

The Emergency and Medical Services Act and the Emergency Medical Care Personnel Act calls for the state to designate state and local emergency medical services authorities.

The county’s Department of Health Services approves training programs, issues certification and decertification of hospitals and emergency medical services personnel, and mandates the use of standard equipment in all facilities.

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer