LONG BEACH - There was a bounty of celebratory cake to enjoy, but patients with pressing health problems left little time to mark the 40th anniversary of the Paramedic Base Station this month at St. Mary Medical Center.
The hospital established the first base station in Long Beach, and over the span of four decades emergency services have expanded and become more sophisticated, said Dr. Stephen Shea, director of the hospital's emergency department.
Today, for instance, the Emergency Medical System now delivers a new therapeutic hypothermia medical treatment that has already helped to save more lives, said St. Mary spokeswoman Francine Marlenée.
Other changes in the works include using one paramedic and one emergency medical technician - instead of two paramedics - on ambulances operated by the Long Beach Fire Department.
The city's new cost-saving staffing model could become the first test in the county, Fire Chief Mike DuRee recently told the City Council.
The quick action and expertise of those involved in EMS today often make a difference between life and death situations, Marlenée said.
The hospital's base station takes in more than 40,000 emergency medical calls per year.
In 1972, when the program began, the focus was mainly on cardiac arrest emergencies. Cardiologist nurses were part of the response teams, Shea said.
As awareness of the emergency response system spread, people began calling about other urgent medical problems, injuries in car accidents, gun wounds and childbirth, Shea said.
"The training has totally changed," he said, adding that paramedics need regular updated training.
Shea said there were no statistics for the first three years, but there were fewer than 1,000 calls initially each year.
Last year, there were 67,000 calls for service, including for firefighters and lifeguards, Shea said, adding that 80 percent of the calls were for paramedics.
"It's been a huge increase in volume," the doctor said.
There also was a coolness, in the beginning, to the idea of having firefighter personnel involved in emergency health care.
"Firefighters didn't feel colleagues should be paramedics," Shea said.
Callers had to dial 436-8211; the 911 emergency number was not implemented until 1983.
In 1979, Shea was medical director for Long Beach Emergency Medical Care System, and he also became the only medical director for the Fire Department.
As the program grew, the first full-time nurse educators were hired in 1988 by the Fire Department, and the Emergency Medical System Division was formed under then-Battalion Chief Skip Beck.
Demand for services has continued to increase, but resources have matched the demands - training costs and maintenance of continued education of paramedics have been budgeted.
Equipment costs have also mounted, from two to 15 paramedic-equipped units.
"It's a pricey proposition, but it's well worth the price," Shea said.