(pronounced gosh - oh; putting two hands together in a prayer position directly in front of the chin.)

Some human processes are too slow for us to notice. This is not a novel observation. Stocks and bonds, for example, had reverse functions in the early part of this century, compared to today: Bonds were speculative and stocks were conservative. The change was hard to notice over a twenty-year period. Over a sixty-year period, medical doctors went from being considered little better than quacks to being wealthy and powerful members of the community. The subject of this article is another, even slower process.

I gashho&emdash;put my hands in a prayerful position and bow my head slightly&emdash;whenever I hear an ambulance or fire engine siren. I do this because I have recognized that two slow-moving trends have converged: (1) the emergence of two purely compassionate professions in our society; and (2) our growing appreciation of the importance of the public good. Today, firefighters and paramedics are people who find employment in high-risk jobs that are designed solely to help people. That is why I gashho to them when I hear the sound of their work.

How did this come about? Who are the firefighters and paramedics among us? Why aren't we told, as young people, that there are specific jobs for compassionate adults. Of course, there are other compassionate jobs, such as nursing&emdash;the origin of para-medicine. But the purely compassionate quality of nursing is much more widely known and respected.

Firefighters emerged as purely compassionate workers only in this century. In the past, especially in rural areas, fire departments were entirely volunteer and many had a long history of acrimony. It was common to form tax districts and wage political battles over whether rich people should pay more for fire protection because their houses were more expensive houses, where the fire station should be located, and whether to put out fires for people who vote against the fire department or who don't volunteer for duty.

In addition, before gasoline engines, most fire trucks were hand pumped, which required strong young men. Firefighters therefore acquired a macho, sexy aura that detracted from the compassionate nature of the profession. Today, the large number of urban areas with a broad tax base, gasoline engines able to pump high-powered hoses, and professional full-time staffs have significantly changed the profession and made it a much more compassion oriented job.

In addition, though many fire departments long resisted the change, minorities and women have joined the ranks of firefighters, changing the macho overtone. Today, people join a fire department because they are willing to risk their life to save a stranger.

We have slowly evolved to this state of affairs. Bless the firefighters.

For decades, ambulances were specialized vehicles that transported sick people to a place where they could receive medical care. The ambulance driver was just a driver, not a person with medical skills. During the Korean War, this began to change. The United States Army began training servicemen to perform helicopter evacuations of injured soldiers to M.A.S.H units behind the lines. MASH units gained fame after the war, first in a film, then in a long-running 261 episode television series. Their real contribution was to radically improve battlefield survival rates. By the time the Vietnam War was underway, medical care was being delivered by medics on the battlefield and in helicopters as they flew to hospitals.

During the mid-seventies, this kind of mobile medical care was adopted by ambulance services in the U.S. , both private ambulances and public. Today, the ambulance is both an emergency care unit as well as a means of transport. Paramedics save lives at the accident scene and on the way to the hospital. The medic-unit ambulance with a siren blaring is pure compassion in motion administered to a stranger.

Times have changed the ambulance and the driver. Bless the people who take these jobs.

Details of the History

The civilian experience of emergency care outside domestic hospitals that began in America in the late sixties also requires recognition of an experiment during the "Troubles" in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Dr. J. Frank Pantridge who placed physicians in coronary-care vehicles to treat individuals with heart disorders before they were admitted to hospitals. This experiment was brought first to the United States by Dr. Eugene Nagel in Miami Florida who began training firemen to act as "physician extenders.'' The U.S. government, with its Vietnam experience took the lead extending the new form of emergency medical care through out the country with the Highway Safety Act of 1966 and the Emergency Medical Services Act of 1973. This latter act created guidelines and funding for training, equipment, and the implementation of regional systems.

Changes in Our Society

Society seems to have a growing need to recognize people who work for the common good. We have stopped putting up heroic statues to patriotic warriors and other symbolic conquistadors, and instead we have the Vietnam Memorial, with its tragic list of the dead. Today, people who work for the common good are honored with dinners, grants, prizes, and encomiums in magazines and television shows. These are ordinary people, working for the common good in areas of the environment, social services, and community activism.

Honoring this kind of selflessness is a new trend in our society; the Goldman Environmental Awards is an example. A cursory glance through a year's worth of papers and magazines from any period before Vietnam will reveal how rarely this kind of recognition occurred in the past. Most of the earlier patterns for awards were from churches to their outstanding members, from Rotary Clubs to their meritorious members, and from cities to prestigious citizens and prominent locals.

In the spirit of this trend of recognizing people who work for the common good, the sound of the sirens of firetrucks and ambulances warrants a gashho to the compassionate heroes among us they risk their lives for strangers in need.

Michael Phillips, May 1997 (revised 2000)


Home |Public Radio |Clear Glass Press |Resume |MP's Books |Articles |Misc |E-mail|