It will be three decades this summer since I put on the green-and-white uniform of the New York City Emergency Medical Service and began the work of running the streets of the Bronx in a city ambulance, picking up, aiding and sometimes saving the sick, hurt, stabbed and shot.
It was a job I had less than three years, leaving in 1990 for the higher salary and better benefits of the New York Police Department.
But the recent line-of-duty death of EMT Yadira Arroyo, her family’s remarkable grace, and the ongoing courtroom drama involving her accused killer, brought me back to that experience. Arroyo was assigned to the same ambulance station where I once worked.
EMS was my first city job, and I loved the silver shield they gave me, and the half-moon shoulder patch emblazoned with the New York skyline. The training was memorable, too. We’d start the day running laps and working out on the grassy fields of Fort Totten, Queens — the location of the EMS academy — getting in shape to climb to the top floor of a project building when the elevator is out, lugging an oxygen tank and assorted gear, and down again carrying an asthma patient or gunshot victim.
Then we’d be in the classroom, where the instructors tried to ready us for the things we’d see. “You’ll get to the point,” one joked, “where you can hold a severed head in one hand, and eat a tuna fish sandwich with the other.”
He was exaggerating. But only a little.
After training, I was sent to Boston Outpost in the South Bronx, a former firehouse with metal walls, containing little more than garage space, an administrative office, and a lunchroom. And some of the best people I’ll ever meet.
The world of EMS was a garden of diversity — not the illusory kind that comes from manipulating civil service testing and hiring — but a true diversity resulting from people of varied backgrounds, all being drawn to the same exciting and caring profession.
White, black, Hispanic and Asian men and women of every faith and ethnicity, born and raised city kids and lifelong suburbanites, all worked together in various combinations. And, young and silly as we were, we sure had fun with those differences. We’d horse around constantly, mimicking each other’s accents and slang expressions, and making jokes that wouldn’t pass today’s sensitivity tests.
But we learned from each other too.
We’d bounce from one end of the Bronx to the other, racing each other to the most interesting calls, and — most importantly in those days of crack mayhem — watching each other’s backs.
The next radio run might be an able-bodied adult wanting a taxi ride to the emergency room for a minor ailment, a mom worried about her baby’s fever, a drug addict either sleepy or frenzied, an emotionally disturbed person, someone under a subway train, or a stabbing or shooting with the perp still on the scene.
Unpredictability was the norm. Protecting each other was the rule.
After work, we’d go out together, gather for hours in a bar or diner, and rehash all our adventures. And then do it all again the next day.
In the years after I left, I read in the papers and heard through friends how the job has changed. The uniforms became blue, and the ambulances went from orange to red, as EMS transitioned from part of the city hospital system to a division of the New York City Fire Department. And some of the old cowboy spirit was lost as the service was subjected to stricter rules and procedures.
But one thing didn’t change — the pay and benefits for EMS, despite some improvements, remained substandard. According to press accounts, Arroyo’s base salary was less than $50,000, much less than either police officers or firefighters earn.
Attending Arroyo’s wake and funeral — and visiting the station where we both worked, bedecked with flowers and tributes to her life — I ran into old EMS friends, and met new ones. The camaraderie and caring I remembered was still there, among rookies and veterans alike.
Like cops and firefighters, New York City EMTs and paramedics risk themselves for others. Maybe it’s time to pay them like the professionals — and sometimes heroes — that they are.
The author is a New York Police Department captain and a longtime resident of the Mosholu Parkway area.