The History of EMS & Where We’re Going

It’s EMS Week and this year’s theme is “Honoring Our Past. Forging Our Future.” Since it’s the 50th anniversary, it’s a good time to review the history of EMS and look forward to the future. We often take for granted our history, forgetting where we came from. So, let’s review a few quick points along the EMS timeline and see where this journey is taking us.

The History of EMS

Emergency medicine has come far since the dark ages of sawing off limbs with small infections. Here’s a brief walkthrough of the history of EMS.

The Early Days

In 1862, Major Jonathan Letterman of the Army of the Potomac creates the US Ambulance Corps to aid wounded soldiers on active battlefields rather than waiting for battle to end. Later that decade, Cincinnati and New York have active ambulance services for civilians.

In WWI, soldiers use signal boxes for medical assistance. By 1928, volunteer services begin in Virginia and the trend passed on to other states.

In the 30s and 40s, more services emerge within hospitals, fire departments, funeral homes, and even towing companies. They all set their own rules for triage and transport. With few standards other than getting the injured or ill to a hospital, little roadside service is performed.

Gaining Structure

In the 50s, funeral homes start patient care and run almost half the ambulances in the country. Then, in the 60s, The National Academy of Science publishes a study called Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society. As the focus shifts from transport to actual medical service in the field, federal legislation passes to regulate requirements and the term Emergency Medical Technician is born.

In the 70s, EMT-P (paramedic) curriculum is developed, involving 400 hours of class time, labs, and hospital rotations, plus 100 hours of field training. As 911 is underway in Alabama (1968), EMS regulations are being established across the country including training regulations, radio communications, and ambulance specifications. In the 80s, the position of EMS Physician is born to provide greater oversight.

More Regulations

More legislation and standardization continues into the 90s and 2000s: The National EMS Information System, Enhanced 911 Act, Federal Interagency Committee on EMS, and The National EMS Advisory Council. In 2018, Congress passed the National EMS Memorial Foundation to support a continuous memorial in Washington, DC for EMS personnel.

As community awareness and involvement increases, and government regulations and assistance increases through grants, programs, and legislation, the history of EMS continues striving to bring us to a more effective state of emergency care for the country.

This is only a summarized history of EMS and by no means all-inclusive. So, where are we now and where are we going?

The Future of EMS

We’ve come far in medical advancement. We’ve grown as both individual communities and as a nation. Education and resources are being shared throughout the country. But we have more work to do.

Many communities still struggle for resources and funding. EMS personnel struggle with the job. The mental and physical and emotional taxation puts them at higher risk for injury—moral injury, physical injury, mental health issues, and more.

While we continue as a first responder community to enhance our knowledge base and expertise in our fields, let’s also continue to support one another going forward.

This week, we celebrate our EMS brothers and sisters. Let’s do so by continuing to support them and each other in their work, education, mental health, and through camaraderie as first responders.