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Bremerton Fire’s first paramedics recall the past

A group of Bremerton Fire Department’s paramedics pose for a picture in 1986, 10 years after the start of the paramedic program, in front of two of their aid units near Evergreen Rotary Park. From left, Scott Rappleye (now fire marshal), Dick Johnson (no longer with the department), medical officer John Hawkins (now lieutenant), Larry Rankin (now retired), Al Duke (now chief), Stan Plyler (now medical officer) and Dave Moen (now captain).    - Courtesy photo
A group of Bremerton Fire Department’s paramedics pose for a picture in 1986, 10 years after the start of the paramedic program, in front of two of their aid units near Evergreen Rotary Park. From left, Scott Rappleye (now fire marshal), Dick Johnson (no longer with the department), medical officer John Hawkins (now lieutenant), Larry Rankin (now retired), Al Duke (now chief), Stan Plyler (now medical officer) and Dave Moen (now captain).
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Today, there are 18 certified paramedics working for the Bremerton Fire Department.

Thirty years ago, it was the perseverance of three emergency medical technicians that brought paramedic services in Bremerton to fruition.

Already operating as first responders for BFD in the 1970s, Larry Rankin, Ray Wiggs and Rene Mason saw an immense need for an advanced life support program.

“We were delivering dead solutions to hospitals instead of live problems,” Mason said.

Despite opposition from others in the community at the time, the three men continued to push the issue and eventually were given approval to attend paramedic training at Tacoma Community College.

“We volunteered to do it, we were actually begging to do it,” Rankin said.

The three of them quickly realized the amount of work that accompanied the new training.

“It was pretty intense, we had to continue to go to work at the same time,” Rankin said.

Fitting classroom work and field training into their schedules meant working around their 24-hour shifts at Bremerton Fire.

“I remember sitting in the basement of my house, studying for hours and hours,” Wiggs said. “I remember waking up with my face in the book. It was a long haul for a long time, but in the end I think it benefited us and the community.”

After completing the nearly yearlong course, Rankin, Wiggs and Mason had accomplished one feat, but still had many hurdles to overcome.

“We didn’t come back and go right into (paramedic) service,” Rankin said. “We had little to no equipment.”

They started out with a borrowed Physio-Control Corporation Life Pak, a fixed straight blade laryngoscope borrowed from a local nurse anesthetist and four pages of standing orders.

Each year thereafter, EMTs at Bremerton Fire have continued to obtain paramedic training. In 1977, just a year after the first three completed training, there were eight paramedics in the department.

Born and raised in Bremerton, Rankin and Wiggs recall responding to several medical calls which involved people they knew or parents of high school classmates.

“Being a hometown boy, you were able to help those you didn’t know and those you knew,” Wiggs said. “It was unfortunate that you were treating your high school friends and acquaintances.”

“It wasn’t uncommon that I’d respond to parents of kids I went to high school with,” Rankin said. “I’d look up on the wall and see pictures of them.”

During his 31 years with the department including 26 years as a paramedic, Rankin, who retired in 2002, says the most dramatic change throughout the years was the ever-increasing call volume.

“We had about 1,600 aid calls that first full year. The year I retired we had about 6,000 aid calls,” he said.

Rankin is proud to have been a part of the program since its inception.

“I’ve always felt proud that we got it started in the area,” he said. “We pushed to get it started ... The writing was on the wall. If we didn’t provide that service, someone else was going to.”

Both Wiggs and Mason also have since retired. Wiggs served as a paramedic for about 15 years before going on to work in the fire marshal’s office as a fire investigator. He also dabbled in public education for the department before retiring in 1998 after 31 years of service.

Mason served with the department until 1981. He also looks fondly upon his experience as a paramedic.

“The feeling of saving a life was extremely emotional,” he said. “The feeling of success and seeing a live person sitting in that hospital bed and knowing they were dead when you got to them, it was a pretty amazing experience.”

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