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January 23, 2019

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Book rekindles tales of tragedy, triumph within Nevada’s ambulance service

Police Shooting After Pursuit

Steve Marcus

An ambulance leaves the scene of an officer-involved shooting Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, near Pecos and Alexander roads.

Nevada EMS

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Paramedic Alan Tinney remembers pulling up to MGM Grand on that autumn day in 1980 and witnessing “a fireball coming out the side of the building” — the beginning of what would be the deadliest tragedy in Nevada history. Eighty-five people died in the blaze, and nearly 700 were injured.

Tinney would make three runs from MGM — now Bally’s — carrying seven to nine victims each time to emergency rooms. Along the way, he and his partner provided life-saving treatments for smoke inhalation to several patients.

The day’s efforts occurred just seven years after the birth of the nation’s modern Emergency Medical Services system that nurtured a new generation of professional, medically trained first responders.

Tinney is one of about 150 emergency responders, representing every Nevada county, to be profiled in the recently released book “Nevada EMS: A History of Emergency Medical Services in Nevada” ($39 via the Web site written by retired Reno physician Dr. Elwood L. Schmidt.

For 18 months beginning in 2012, Schmidt and photographer John Kasinger criss-crossed the state, talking to veteran EMTs, doctors and other medical personnel to compile a comprehensive and compelling oral history that chronicles the evolution of ambulance services at fire departments, private ambulance companies and — in the earliest days — mortuaries.

“As late as 1966, 12,000 mortuaries in the United States were providing ambulance services, many using their hearses,” said Schmidt, who worked 50 years as a physician, including stints in rural Nevada towns such as Yerington, Lovelock, West Wendover, Eureka and Beatty. “It made sense at the time because mortuaries had the type of vehicles where patients could lie flat."

The level of care improved dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, Schmidt said — improvements developed by “volunteers in small towns who had very limited resources.”

Three years after his 2009 retirement, Schmidt set out to interview representatives from most of the state’s emergency medical systems to tell Nevada’s ambulance history.

The big changes started occurring in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which didn’t find full traction until 1973. The advances were popularized by the NBC-TV 1970s drama “Emergency!” about rescue operations conducted by a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic squad.

“All across the United States, county and city commissioners were watching that show and began insisting that their communities have similar systems,” Schmidt said. The show also bred a young generation of wanna-be paramedics.

Such modern operations stood in stark contrast to an earlier era when desperate medical responders used almost any vehicle to serve as ambulances. Schmidt discovered that in Beatty, for instance, one early ambulance actually was a converted meat wagon.

Also, prior to the early ’70s, there were no IV units, no defibrillators, no EKG machines — little in the way of today’s modern life-saving equipment — in ambulances.

At the time, ambulance operators were not required to have medical training. Schmidt said, noting that ambulance company owners “encouraged” their workers to take first aid classes but did not force them to do so.

In Schmidt’s book, 27 Clark County EMTs and doctors who worked closely with them are profiled. They shared stories of success and tragedy.

For example, Larry Wrangham, a Las Vegas Fire Department EMT for 17 years, delivered 17 babies during his career but has long been haunted by the death of a 2-year-old who drowned in a 5-gallon bucket of water.

Lori Johnson, a longtime EMT in Mesquite, and her partner, Rick Resnick, recalled helping to save a 10-year-old stabbing victim but were unable to save Johnson’s 3-year-old sister who was stabbed in the head during the same horrific incident.

Tinney told Schmidt that, in the EMS business, you have to grow a thick skin to deal with so much tragedy. Schmidt wrote: “No formal debriefing or stress management was conducted (after the MGM fire) but Alan feels that he was able to handle the multiple incidents he dealt with by becoming more detached without being less effective in his care.”

A few years after the MGM fire, Tinney left Emergency Medical Services, returned to school and in 1986 earned an engineering degree. Schmidt wrote in his book that Tinney said he “still missed the adrenalin rush he got from going on calls and the satisfaction he received from positively affecting people’s lives.”

Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.

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