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This ambulance rolled about the Jacksonville area during the mid Fifties. It was owned by a local African-American funeral home.
Jacksonville became a national leader in the delivery of emergency medical care.
Nurses and their ambulance. photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5390
Ware-Smith Funeral Home, Tampa, FL. photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/117595
A horse-drawn ambulance, 1912. photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/30279

Funeral Home Ambulances

Let’s say that you or someone else was sick or injured and needed to be rushed to a hospital. Not so long ago, you would probably have called a funeral home! As late as the mid 1970s, funeral home ambulances transported people to emergency rooms. The services shown above were provided by Jacksonville funeral businesses during the mid Fifties. By fulfilling a vital function, their ambulances saved numerous lives that would have otherwise been lost.

The first motorized ambulance in America rolled out in 1899. Battery powered, this van zoomed along at a whopping 16 miles an hour. In 1901, it transported the dying President William McKinley after he was shot by an assassin.

In the years to come, it often fell to funeral homes to double as ambulance services. Their hearses seemed well suited for carrying a person quickly, comfortably, and horizontally; the vehicles were large enough to accommodate long stretchers. And funeral personnel were already on call twenty-four hours a day.

ANTIQUE JAX AMBULANCE — Was the River City’s first ambulance a hearse? A newspaper account of it is ambiguous. Nevertheless, a local funeral home did provide the vehicle. In 1910, Jacksonville became “the second city in the South to secure an automobile ambulance,” according to the Florida Times-Union of December 15 that year. The auto was purchased by Marcus Conant Funeral Directors & Embalmers, located at 16 East Forsyth Street, which today would be across from the windows of the Florida Collection at the Main Public Library downtown. (A parking garage now occupies the spot.) Boasted the Times-Union, “The handsome machine arrived yesterday and was immediately put in service…” A 50-horsepower, four-cylinder engine powered the ambulance, “a beauty in every respect.” Its most noticeable feature was “the lack of vibration,” which would otherwise “disturb the patient.”

The Times-Union furnished other juicy details about the new emergency vehicle: “The interior of the machine is finished in mahogany, the attendants seats are upholstered in black leather, and an elegantly upholstered bed (is provided) for the patient. The machine throughout is equipped with three kinds of lights (gas, electricity, and oil), while the interior of the machine is fitted with electric fans, speaking tubes, thermometer, and water cooler, all of brass finish. The tires are heavy and of the quick detachable type with demountable rings enabling the driver to make a complete change in three minutes… The exterior of the ambulance is of a silver gray color, trimmed with gold. The speed is from three to sixty miles per hours, and the machine is equipped with every possible safety appliance.”

LIFE & DEATH CONCERNS — By the 1960s, over half of America’s ambulances were not vehicles made specifically for the care & transport of patients. Instead, they were hearses, station wagons, vans, or trucks. During the Sixties & early Seventies, however, an increasing number of ambulances proved to be mini-hospitals on wheels, complete with two-way radios. There were many reasons for this change. They include the following:

  • The Vietnam War led to significant progress in trauma research & treatment. The conflict also demonstrated that well-trained non-physicians could save lives.
  • Ambulance attendants could take advantage of increased educational opportunities concerning emergency medical assistance. The medical training of ambulance personnel became much more comprehensive.
  • In 1966, Medicare regulations required ambulances to contain personnel trained in Advanced First Aid by the Red Cross.
  • In order to decrease auto fatalities, the federal Highway Safety Administration focused on the “medic” concept that had worked so effectively in Vietnam.
  • Federal laws regulated the pay of ambulance attendants. Consequently, many funeral homes couldn’t earn enough money from their vehicles to maintain the ambulance services.
  • The public perception of ambulance attendants largely changed because of the hit TV show “Emergency!” Broadcast from 1972 to 1977, the series made “paramedic” a household word. On the weekly drama, the paramedics, played by actors, provided highly skilled medical assistance to patients as they were raced to the hospital. The ambulance personnel seemed so advanced at the time, communicating with doctors by special radios. (Jack Webb was the producer who got the ball rolling for the show. He also created “Dragnet” and played the stone-faced Sergeant Friday.)

Because of these and other reasons, funeral homes began to retire from the ambulance business. They turned the services over to hospitals, city fire departments, county governments, and private and volunteer ambulance operators.

A CHANGE IN SIRENS — Fifty years ago, however, the provision of emergency care began to change. Over half of America’s ambulances were not vehicles made specifically for the treatment & transport of patients. Instead, they were hearses, station wagons, vans, or trucks. During the Sixties & early Seventies, though, an increasing number of ambulances proved to be mini-hospitals on wheels, complete with two-way radios. Staffed by trained paramedics, they were maintained by hospitals, city fire departments, county governments, and private and volunteer ambulance operators.

JAX TO THE FOREFRONT — When it came to emergency medical services, Jacksonville hadn’t proved much different from other areas across America. By the 1970s, nevertheless, the River City stood as a pioneer. Some of this was due to the efforts of Dr. Roy Baker, the city’s first trained cardiologist, who had  a practice on Park Street, not far from the now-gone Riverside Hospital. Dr. Baker showed a strong interest in emergency cardiac care. Partly as a result, Jacksonville became known during the early Seventies as the safest place in the world to have a heart attack. Every Jax firefighter was trained in CPR, as well as in other life-saving procedures.

Inspiration & expertise also came from South Florida. During the late Sixties, the City of Miami began a program to educate its firefighters in the use of defibrillation gear in the field. Miami focused on telemetry, a cutting-edge development which linked the EKG units at the patient’s side to a hospital doctor. The city’s firefighting units were also equipped to handle other medical emergencies, and personnel were taught how to give intravenous fluids. Knowing a good thing when it saw it, the City of Jacksonville copied this program in 1969.

Jacksonville quickly emerged as a national leader in emergency medical services. It ranked high on the list of trendsetters, along with San Diego, Seattle, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Valdosta, Georgia. Many cities sent representatives to learn from Jacksonville’s EMS providers.

EMERGENCY ROOM BLUES — Here’s something that’s interesting: Many emergency rooms in America’s hospitals used to be staffed with personnel who were not specialized in trauma treatment. As a sub-specialty, trauma medicine proved non-existent. Emergency rooms often contained medical students and on-call doctors from various specialties whose knowledge of trauma was limited. The Vietnam War, though, led to significant progress in trauma research & treatment. The conflict also demonstrated that well-trained non-physicians could save lives.

Jacksonville’s Dr. Baker devoted himself to the improvement of emergency services, concentrating on ambulance attendants and emergency room staff. Dr. Baker and the Jacksonville Fire Department helped make the city a groundbreaker in emergency care. Also during the Seventies, a new residency in emergency medicine was initiated at University Hospital of Jacksonville. The facility took a chance by investing in a new & untried specialty. However, the emergency department there was described as a “war zone,” inundated with cases. Desperate circumstances demanded innovative measures. (University Hospital of Jacksonville was a new facility that opened in 1971 across from Methodist Hospital on Jefferson and Eighth streets. In 1982, University Medical Center assumed operation of University Hospital, and in 1999, University Medical Center and Methodist Medical Center merged, forming Shands Jacksonville.)

Thanks partially to the guidance provided by Jacksonville, emergency medical services have improved immeasurably over the years.

~written by Glenn Emery

Copyright © 2017 by Jacksonville Historical Society