History of the Chicago Fire Department Emergency Ambulance Service

History of the Chicago Fire Department Emergency Ambulance Service

    It was November of 1928 when the Chicago Fire Department first began operating ambulances to mostly respond and provide first aid to its firemen at working fires and, if necessary, transport them to Cook County Hospital. This practice continued throughout the Great Depression and the decade of the ‘30’s. In 1941, at the outbreak of World War II, the fire department was operating four ambulances and in July of that same year a survey was conducted by a local civic association which had targeted the lack of emergency ambulance service as a critical city-wide community need. Its findings concluded that there were 138 public and privately operated ambulance vehicles that could be available in a major disaster. 94 of these vehicles were Chicago Police Department Patrol Wagons which were designed with two facing squad benches to transport prisoners but could be instantly used to secure and transport a patient using the two folding military litters that were carried aboard. 

    Of the 94 vehicles, excluding the Patrol Wagons, the remaining were squad car sedans and equipped with a folding stretcher which could be inserted by opening the trunk and lowering the rear seat of each sedan. Both patrol wagons and squad car sedans were manned with two police officers at all times. The other vehicles capable of patient transportation were operated by the Contagious Disease Hospital, the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium as well as long-time funeral homes and commercial ambulance services at that time. The Chicago Park District Police Department also operated 15 squad car sedans with stretcher transport capability in their mission of patrolling Chicago’s highway and parks including the Outer Drive along Lake Michigan. The Chicago Chapter of the American Red Cross also maintained a fleet of 20 reserve ambulances for disasters or use at major public events. The Red Cross had originally created an ambulance service at many of its major Chapters in response to the patient transport demands created by the Great Spanish Flu Pandemic Outbreak in 1918 and continued to maintain some of this capability over the ensuing two decades.

    A previous study, conducted a year earlier, concluded that only approximately 18% of Chicago’s accident victims were being transported by police squad car sedans, patrol wagons, and rarely by the four ambulances operated by the fire department. It determined that the remaining 82% of these accident victims were transported to the hospital by passing automobiles or taxi-cabs. Another survey that was conducted determined that almost none of the city’s 86 American Medical Association approved public and private hospitals maintained an emergency ambulance service. Cook County Hospital was found to operate several ambulances which were staffed with both a nurse and intern for “sick” calls coming into the hospital. A 1941 report by the Chicago Hospital Council had recommended that a minimum of 20 dedicated ambulances be maintained at all times within the city. However, both the rapid influx of wartime workforces and the construction of wartime manufacturing plants in the outer city edges later indicated that a minimum of 25 dedicated and staffed ambulances would be needed.

    There was some support by hospital, medical association and city officials to build upon the current four ambulance capability of the fire department. Chicago city officials were prepared to take action but soon discovered that no new ambulance vehicles could be ordered for several major reasons. First, all ambulance manufacturers would only accept ambulance vehicle orders from the military and the wartime laws prohibited sales for non-military purposes. Also, World War II had significantly affected the fire department’s workforce due to the draft. A decision was then made to withhold any proposed changes until after the war ended. During the ensuing war years, a national magazine reported a dismal picture of Chicago hospital wards and described a vehicle accident on the Chicago Loop where a vehicle struck pedestrian lay in the street before a police patrol wagon finally arrived nearly an hour later to load and transport the victim to a hospital. The article described the victim as being “crudely lifted” by officers with no first aid training. The Chicago Tribune and other local publications also reported many additional accounts of the city’s average of 225 ambulance calls that occurred daily. Many of these reported where victims waited in pain for up to an hour for the arrival of a police district patrol wagon or sedan. If the district patrol wagon was unavailable, the district desk sergeant would attempt to call another district to summon a another available wagon.

    At the outbreak of World War II, Joseph J. McCarthy had been assigned to Truck 11 which was one of the cities busiest Hook & Ladder Companies which was located at State Street and 36th Street. He was then inducted into the U.S. Marine Corps and soon reached the rank of Captain. While leading an assault against a Japanese fortified position on Iwo Jima, he was struck by a mortar shell and sustained critical injuries. He was saved by rapid medical care by by both corpsmen and physicians which allowed for his eventual recovery.

    As the war ended, the Chicago Hospital Council had already concluded that the Chicago Fire Department should assume operation of the city-wide emergency ambulance. However, upon hearing of the proposal, Chicago’s private ambulance operators association developed an alternative plan for contracting for city-wide emergency ambulance service by its members. The contract would cost the city approximately $50,000 to $70, 000. They justified this amount by pointing out that it costs the City of San Francisco Public Health Department $404,546.00 to operate its emergency ambulance service therefore costing each taxpayer $4.00 where as their proposal would only cost the city .50 cents per Chicago taxpayer. But city officials decided that such a public responsibility could not be delegated to a private organization so the city council voted for the fire department to assume all operations and authorized funding for personnel, vehicles and equipment.

    For his bravery, Captain McCarthy was awarded the Congressional Metal of Honor by then President Harry Truman. He returned to Chicago as a hero and was promoted to fire department Captain and tasked with organizing the city-wide emergency ambulance service. Captain McCarthy then visited various cities to study their emergency ambulance service operation including New York City, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Washington, DC, Milwaukee, New Orleans and San Francisco. His conclusion was that the Chicago Fire Department was the most logical agency to place primary responsibility for the operation of the service.

    In January of 1946, Captain McCarthy was approved to develop a program that would expand the number of fire department ambulances from its current 4 ambulances to that of eventually having 12 fire station based units. A problem soon arose when several ambulance manufacturer's submitted unsatisfactory bids because no ambulance manufacturer could guarantee a delivery date, estimated that any actual delivery would not take place for 4 to 5 months at the earliest and each builder could only deliver one ambulance. He then later found a suitable ambulance manufacturer when Siebert, Inc of Toledo, Ohio won the bid to build 10 Mercury chassis ambulances to join the three pre-1940 Packards and the one Cadillac. The Mercury vehicles were specified to have 150” wheelbase, a 19.5 foot length, a 34” side door and a rear door that opened upward and cost an average of $7500.00 each. These features featured a Federal Model 66 mechanical siren behind the grill, an attendant side spotlight and a red and green lens MARS warning light on each of the front fenders.

   Equipment for each of the Mercury vehicles included an E&J negative pressure resuscitator, one Baumgartner stretcher, one Rhodes folding stretcher, Corrigan arm and leg traction splints, wood splints,  two large first aid kits, two rubber sheets, five blankets, rubber gloves, hot pads, a hot water bottle, ice packs, a crowbar, a CO2 fire extinguisher, a crowbar and a lantern. Initially, only two ambulances were equipped with an innovative Motorola tube transmitter police two-way radio that required a minute to fully warm up before being able to transmit or receive a message. Then in June of 1952 the city-wide Chicago Fire Department radio system became operational for the first time as call letters “KSC-711”. Prior to this, the department had used the Gamewell Fire Alarm Box system and associated loudspeaker circuit to dispatch all apparatus on calls, to request additional alarm assistance and to be used when reporting back in service.

     It was decided that five firemen would be assigned to each ambulance and would four would staff on a 24 hour on and 24 hour off basis with the 5th man filling in when one of the members were on a “Kelly” off day every 4th working shift. Each ambulance fireman would only be considered for duty assignment if they had at least 10 years of regular firefighting service. Each candidate would be required to successfully complete both the American Red Cross Standard and Advanced First Aid Courses and attend a yearly refresher. Firemen who were assigned for ambulance duty would receive an annual salary of $3,410 per year. Captain McCarthy estimated that each ambulance would cost $17,050.00 in salaries or about $1,420.00 per month per vehicle. It was also required that each ambulance assigned fireman would report to their fire station Lieutenant or Captain in charge and also be required to stand watch.

    All 12 ambulances would be dispatched one of Chicago’s two fire alarm offices located at City hall or the Englewood Office at 6361 South Wentworth Avenue. The City Hall Alarm Office would be responsible for all calls within an area bounded by 39th Street (Pershing Road), North and West to the Chicago City Limits. The Englewood Fire Alarm Office would handle ambulance calls from South and West of 39th Street to the city limits. It was then decided that the ambulances would be based at the following fire stations:

Ambulance Company 1              Engine 1

Ambulance Company 2              Engine 12

Ambulance Company 3              Engine 114

Ambulance Company 4              Engine 50

Ambulance Company 5              Engine 62

Ambulance Company 6              Engine 78

Ambulance Company 7              Engine 108

Ambulance Company 8              Engine 123

Ambulance Company 9              Engine 46

Ambulance Company 10            Engine 95

Ambulance Company 11            Engine 27

Ambulance Company 12            Engine 118 (Airport)

    It was estimated that it would only take 28 seconds from when the station alarm activated until the dispatched ambulance was responding out the door. In 1949, all Chicago ambulances responded to 8,070 alarms and Ambulance Company 4 was Chicago’s busiest ambulance with 1,286 calls. This call volume increased to upwards of 11,000 alarms in 1950. That year the fire departments operated 13 rescue squads also supplemented the ambulances by responding on all “inhalator” calls with the ambulances backing up each squad. Over the decades, the number of ambulances was greatly expanded. The 50’s era Mercury vehicles gave way back to Cadillacs built by the Miller-Meteor Corporation, then to Pontiac chassis ambulances built by Superior Coach, to Ford station wagons, to Ford low roof vans, to Southern Ambulance Builders and Roadsafe Emergency Vehicle Modular vehicles, to raised rood Ford vans and back to its mostly current day Type 1 mediumduty chassis modular ambulances.

    As of 2012, the Chicago Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Division operates 73 paramedic and BLS level ambulance companies out of 96 fire stations. These company stations are based within 24 Fire Battalions that include 96 Engine Companies, 61 Truck or Tower Ladder Companies, 4 Squad Companies, 1 O'Hare Triage Van, 4 EMS Supply Trucks, 4 Mass Casualty Units, 1 Midway Triage Van and 1 Medical Ambulance Bus. The city's EMS Division is commanded by the Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioner of EMS and commands both the North Division and the South Division. EMS Division positions consist of Candidate Fire Paramedic, Fire Paramedic, Paramedic in Charge, Paramedic Ambulance Commander, Paramedic Field Chief/EMS Field Officer, the EMS Assistant Deputy Chief Paramedic, the EMS Deputy Chief Paramedic and the EMS Chief Paramedic. Currently, the Chicago Fire Department is one of the two largest EMS systems in the United States. The service has evolved from its humble beginning back in 1946 to that of an EMS system that serves as a model concept for the nation.


1- Fire Engineering, September 1950

2- Chicago Box Alarm Association Bulletin, 1956

Keywords: chicago, chicago fire, McCarthy, paramedic, ambulance, Tom Bartlett, Tom Bartlett, BS, EMT-P

Last Revision Date: 9/28/12 - 1:09 PM

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