Cecil County EMS: A Quick History

It was Christmas night, and members of Cecil Post 15 of the American Legion in Elkton were home enjoying the holiday. Suddenly, in one Legionnaires’s home, the phone rang. “Hospital Calling!” the voice on the line said. “There’s been a serious automobile accident near Rising Sun,” the operator urgently blurted out. “If we can get the boy to a Baltimore hospital right away, there’ll be a chance for him.” Members of the Elkton Legion, rushing to where the ambulance was housed, rolled out on an errand of mercy.  After darting seventeen miles to the accident, the Doctor told them to step on it for the boy still had a chance. Dashing madly through the Maryland night, with two traffic officers opening up the road, they ate up the miles to Baltimore, reaching the hospital an hour and forty minutes after the phone’s jarring ring. But the trip had been in vain, reported the American Legion Monthly in 1929.

Except for its sad outcome, this run was typical of the type “drivers” at Cecil Post 15 encountered year in and year out as they operated the county’s only ambulance. It had been just a few years earlier, back in January 1926, when they had proposed the service. About the time the Legion started discussing the idea, an accident occurred that demonstrated the need for an emergency unit. The crack Federal Express of the Pennsylvania Railroad derailed near North East one January day. Two hundred passengers were shaken up; one lady broke her ankle. Later, as the wreck crew cleared the tracks, a rail buckled, breaking bones and seriously injuring two workmen, John Elmer and Edward Lewis. These men, though they needed an ambulance, had to wait until a passenger car was found to rush them to the hospital. Had medical transportation been available, suffering would have been alleviated said the Cecil Star, the newspaper in North East.

While train wrecks didn’t happen all that often, heart attacks and other everyday medical emergencies were common enough. For these sick and injured, they were “jolted over country roads on a bed of straw in the bottom of a farm wagon; at other times they were jammed in the backs of touring cars,” the Cecil Whig noted. To illustrate its point, the Whig described a lady who was taken to the hospital after she suffered a stroke. Her family tried to put here into a coupe, but failed. Then a touring car was found. After a great deal of effort, accompanied by obvious discomfort, she was finally put in the back seat of that car. Seeing that the person who was incapacitated faced a “grim ordeal,” the American Legion said, “Let’s raise the money for an ambulance . . . and operate it ourselves.” And that they did in short order, raising more than $7,000 through a community drive.

The Legion purchased a handsome Imperial Cadillac from H. M. Duyckinck of Rising Sun at a cost of $4,500. A parade and dance on April 23, 1926, marked the inauguration of the service; Post Commander John K. Burkley spoke of the spirit that had inspired the post to push for the vehicle.  Union Hospital received calls for the ambulance, relaying requests to the Legion.  A “chief driver” assembled a crew, and got the unit on the road. Near the end of 1926, the vehicle had already answer 124 calls.  When the Legion discontinued service in 1933, because of the growing financial burden, an Elkton garage operator and mayor of the town, Taylor McKenney, stepped in to fill the gap.  Having acquired the Cadillac, he repaired and repainted it, and announced he was running the vehicle on a fee basis.

As delivery of health care moved from home to hospital, the task of providing service became more demanding. In 1942, Singerly Fire Company purchased an ambulance, thus beginning fire company-based service here.“It really was just a hearst and you had two red cross flags and no siren,” recalls Henry Metz, a member of the fire company who nearly 60 years ago rode that ambulance on calls. “Finally, someone bought a little siren, one about the size of a bicycle siren, and put it up on front.” From that point forward, the person having a heart attack, the individual lying in a pool of blood, or the man or woman experiencing other medical problems could be assured that help was on the way.

The Maryland State Police once had an ambulance at the Conowingo Barrack, a 1936 Plymouth. John Stewart Landbeck, Sr., a corporal, who was second in command of the Barrack for a period during the 1940s, said it was mostly used for accident calls. “If we didn’t have an officer at the Barrack, we would call someone off the road to drive to the scene,” Landbeck recalled. In the years that followed, additional units were needed. One Wednesday afternoon in June 1953, town police officer Ottis Ferguson cruised the streets of North East, in a specially designed police car, a combination patrol vehicle and ambulance. The town had purchased it with assistance of the merchants and public.The fire company said it would house the unit in “one of the garages in the rear of the fire house at night,” the Advertiser and Perryville News Reported. Officials said Arnett Armour, Elmer Jones, and R. T. Meekins would serve as auxiliary drivers.

Meanwhile, other fire companies soon entered the field. The Community Fire Company of Perryville purchased a used unit from Harford Memorial Hospital in April 1955. Rising Sun followed in November. The next year, North East bought a Buick.A few years later, Chesapeake City got a unit (1963). Water Witch of Port Deposit formed its service in 1964, after acquiring a secondhand unit from Oxford, PA.

With vehicle now placed around the county, the next improvement involved advances in emergency medical care. At first service advanced from that of “scoop-and-run” to one that could carry out basic first aid and life-saving steps. Units were carrying resuscitators that pushed air back into lungs that had stopped working by the 1960s. On calls, crews would gather up an oxygen tank, splints, bandages, and blankets as they dashed to the aid of a victim.

By the dawn of the 1970s, the nation was ready to use its trauma-care experience from the Vietnam War to improve survival from accidents and medical emergencies; the days when someone with little training could drive to an accident scene, bundle the injured into the back of the ambulance, and cart them off the hospital were quickly fading. In the first step toward providing prehospital emergency care, fire company members from the area started completing the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) courses. This training expanded their capabilities well beyond those of earlier personnel; now they were learning techniques such as patient assessment, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and fracture and shock management

In 1978 Singerly Fire Company graduated the first class of Advanced Life Support providers, lanching the path to today’s modern system.  This group of six graduates were taught by Frank Muller and they could push drugs, defibrillate patients and provide other advanced treatments under the superivision of the ER physician.

At the request of county fire companies, two Cecil County Emergency Medical Service units responded to their first calls in 1988, marking the arrival of a paid county program. This program was designed to help companies handle day time calls. On its first day, September 19, 1988, the units responded to five incidents. Advances in training and medical technology continued, and in 1991 twenty-two individuals committed themselves to even more hours of classroom study, grueling tests, and clinical shifts in the hospital as they become certified paramedics. Their graduation, Michael J. Browne, Deputy Chief of Cecil County Emergency Services and the instructor for the course said, “marked the completion of the first full paramedic training program here.”

“Nine volunteer ambulance stations, eight of which have ambulances (Cecilton runs a first response vehicle).” provide Emergency Medical Services today, and all of these companies have personnel trained to the Advanced Life Support level, according to Browne. Cecil County government assists the volunteer fire companies by running “a supplemental service” adds Browne. “We [Cecil County Government] have three units in service at all times and there are two paramedics on each unit.” This integrated system of volunteer and paid providers responded to some 8,000 calls last year. It is this system of career and volunteer providers, actually Cecil County’s Emergency Medical Service Systems, that just received statewide recognition as one of the best in Maryland.

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4 responses to “Cecil County EMS: A Quick History

  1. Pingback: Cecil County Paramedics Celebrate 20 Years of Service « Someone Noticed

  2. Howard:

    Thanks. On your family history question, I should be able to come up with some info on that. Let me check and get back with you.

  3. It was interesting to see how things progressed from county to another over the years. The advances in technology over the years is amazing! Considering how much some of that stuff weighed compared to what the same thing weighs now, it is surprising how we all were able to do it.
    Plus the cost of the ambulances then vs. now.

    • John:

      Isn’t it amazing, the difference in weight. Don’t know that I’d want to carry those 60 lb defibrillators and things around any more.

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