By Charlie Feldman
Fifty years ago the history of firefighting in Madison County changed when one ambulance rolled into a Collinsville station.
On July 20, 1970 the Collinsville Fire Department became the first known Illinois municipality or fire department south of Chicago to offer emergency medical services.
Mayor John Miller read a special proclamation commemorating this at the August 25 City Council meeting. A short film about the department followed.
“This proclamation is extremely near and dear to my heart,” he told the board. “I spent thirty-one years of this fifty as part of the EMS and the fire department. So it is very touching.”
When he joined in 1973, there were only 16 other firefighters, he said. Of these, two trained emergency medical personnel were assigned – in two shifts – at both the main station on Clinton Street and at the northside station on Belt Line Road. These days, all personnel are trained as paramedics.
“The initial service has been expanded from EMT Basic to the current paramedic system over the last 50 years,” he said. “The current Collinsville fire department EMS system includes three paramedic ambulances, one paramedic engine and a paramedic ladder truck. All are capable of providing lifesaving services.”
He said their role is evolving into an important part of the healthcare community.
Prior to 1970, the fire department’s EMS services consisted of a Rescue Squad and a resuscitator to provide oxygen for patients, according to former fire chief Peter Stehmen in a 2010 article. Ambulances were provided by local funeral homes because, he said, there was no one else to do it. Collinsville’s three funeral homes at the time – Herr, Kassly and Schroepel (now Allan and Ciuferi) met with Fire Chief Jim Ray and Mayor Lewis Krause to create a plan for the fire department to provide the services and presented it to City Council in April 1970, he wrote.
“Training amounted to an eight-hour first-aid course and riding along with the funeral homes on their ambulance runs while the service ramped up and the first city ambulance was ordered,” Stehman remembered in his article. “Indeed it got going pretty quick. The time between that council meeting and the start of service July 20, 1970, was less than 110 days.”
The Collinsville Fire Department itself was founded in 1872 shortly after the village became a city. It was made up of volunteers and denied membership to anyone who drank to excess and used profane language, according to local historians.
Those who drove the equipment to fire scenes to meet the volunteers began to get paid by the city during the 1960s. More and more paid personnel were added and by the 1980s the volunteers were gone, according to local history.
In comparison with Collinsville, ambulance service for the village of Maryville and its fire protection district through the fire department began in the early ‘80s with a used 1977 Dodge that had been previously owned by a hospital in the St. Louis area.
Before that a local funeral home provided service. Before that, in 1960, Maryville had an ambulance of its own for a while, purchased by its emergency civil defense department.
Edwardsville started its ambulance service in 1974.
“The ambulance service was upgraded to the paramedic level in 1983 when the Edwardsville Fire Department sent firefighters through the first paramedic training class offered through Anderson Hospital,” said Maryville Heritage Museum director Michael Picchioldi, who served as a paramedic in Edwardsville during the 1990s.
Edwards Funeral Home and later Laughlin provided ambulance service at the time those other municipalities were starting their services and programs.