page six-week in
Number 15 Page Three Januar
y 19, 1975
e chaos of
The men and women on the Fontana-Taylor ambulance
must have quick and accurate
on little or no sleep. Trained professionals, these peo-
ple prove that ambulance service is no longer a mat-
ter of "Hurry Up, Throw 'Em On A Cot, and Bag-Ass
It To The Hospital.
By KEVIN PERROTA
IUXtNING AN AMBULANCE sere-
ice does not at first sight re-
semble bronco riding. But John
Pontana and John Taylor, who op-
erate a local ambulance service,
are Lmpelled by some of the same
fascinations that lure a man to
mount an unbroken horse in a ro-
deo - the desire to match what is
quick and unpredictable with equal
quickness, the desire to master
danger with skill.
The bronco the two men have
to ride is the emergency medical
situation in Washtenaw County.
From the more than 300,000 stu-
dent and non-student residents of
the county, calls for help flash to
the Fontana - Taylor Ambulance
Service with the irregular rhythm
of a failing heart and the sudden-
ness of a splintering windshield.
The service - partly subsidized by
the county to insure coverage of
rural areas, but privately owned
and operated - responds to more
than 1,000 calls each month. The
company, with more than 30 em-
ployees, keeps five emergency med-
ical vehicles on the road. There is
one post each in Chelsea, Saline,
and Ypsilanti, and a post with two
units at Ann Arbor.
Fontana boasts of the company's
fast reflexes. "We consistently get
to more than 90 percent of our calls
in less than 10 minutes," he claims.
That's far ahead of the national
average. In Detroit, which is smal-
ler geographically than Washte-
naw County, and where they have
more vehicles, they don't even
compute a 10 minute figure be-
cause it would probably be so bad."
Given the least opportunity,
John Fontana will try to clear up
any misconceptions you- may have
about ambulance work. About six
feet tall, with a slightly weathered
face and a no-nonsense manner,
33-year-old Fontana dominates his
small office. His room is tucked
away behind the dispatch area,
which is crowded with four phones,
radio gear, and a five-foot high
tape recorder-clock, which looks
like the modern descendant of the
"This business is more complex
than even your stretch of the ima-
gination could think," he says.
"Most people see an ambulance
driving down the road and think,
'Oh, I could do that. You'd be sur-
prised how really complex and fast
changing it is."
Fontana makes a clear distinc-
tion between "traditional" and
"professional" ambulance services.
"Traditionally, ambulance serv-
ice was Hurry Up, Throw 'Em On A
Cot, Bag-Ass It To The Hospital,"
he explains. "Ambulance crews
weren't trained, ,so anyone could
tell you what they wanted done.
There was a failure to be profes-
sional. Ninety percent of the am-
bulance companies used to be run
by funeral homes. Why should
they make ambulance service a
FONTANA HIMSELF was attract-
ed to ambulance work as a boy
when his father served on funeral
company ambulances. His dad went
on to operate his own funeral home
- Fontana Funeral Nome, in Ann
Arbor. But John Fontana cherished
a desire to operate an ambulance
service - a professional ambu-
At age 18, he and John Taylor
-who met during registration at
EMU--considered setting up their
own company. But they didn't have
the money. Both entered the serv-
ice for eight years - Taylor the
Navy, where he worked on nuclear
submarines and scuba diving, Fon-
tana the Army, where he taught
electronics and worked 86 hours
per week on the side with an am-
bulance company in El Paso, Tex-
as. Then three years ago Fontana
started the present business. Tay-
lor joined him a few months later.
"The ambulance industry now is
in one hell of a revolution," Fon-
tana states. "It's becoming a sepa-
rate career field like police and
firefighting. Traditionally, it was a
business for 18-year-old jet joc-
keys who wanted to do something
exciting until they figured out
what they really wanted to do.
Now we have people 30 to 35 years
old, people with families, register-
ed nurses. Nationally, the industry
used to have a 70 percent turnover
in personnel every six months.
Here we have a 15 percent turn-
over every year."
Also 33 years old, Taylor stands
about six inches shorter than Fon-
tana. He looks you directly in the
eye when he talks, purses his lips
firmly when he's listening, and
doesn't smile often. He's as no-
nonsense as his partner. Ambu-
lance work requires military organ-
ization, he says, just as police and
* * *
PONTANA - TAYLOR crewmen
and women work a 24 - hour
day which begins at 8 am. During
those hours there is usually some
time to sleep. But ambulance peo-
ple don't overestimate the length
or value of it. At an ambulance
post, everyone sleeps lightly.
You're always waiting. You may
be having a sandwich in the dining
area of the loft above the garage,
or you may be sacked out on one
of the seven beds lined up between
the dining table and the stairs. But
inside yourself, you're listening,
listening for the horn blasts which
come ripping through the large
windowless loft, knocking sand-
wiches out of crewmen's hands,
pulling sleepers upright in their
beds, sending workers down the
stairs to the ambulances below.
"I've gone four or five days with-
out sleep," claims Jay Blethen, 30,
a wiry man with curly brown hair,
a moustache, and a thin, high
voice. Five days without any sleep?
"I take catnaps. My favorite place
is behind the wheel of a car," he
"We're paid for 24 hours, and we
usually work 24 hours," Kel Lowe
asserts. Kel, 26 years old, is thin,
with black hair and moustache.
"On our day off, we're mostly rest-
Fontana - Taylor crews work ev-
ery other day. This is more than
firemen, who are on duty 24 hours
every three days.
"It's very rough on family life,"
Kel states. "I see my wife every
other day for an hour."
KEL JOINED Fontana-Taylor last
July when he and his wife
moved to Ann Arbor so that she
could complete a program in sue-
Mial. education at the University of
Licensed Practical Nurse with 14
years experience in various phases
of hospital work, Jay is looked up
to by other crewmen as a man who
knows what he's doing.
A wearying, demanding sched-
ule. An endless round of meals at
places like Arby's and The Jolly
Tiger. Low pay - about $700 per
month. Why do it? Ambulance
workers at Fontana - Taylor say
you really have to like it.
Alan Hoffman used to sell cam-
eras at Sears, but quit because he
hated it. He thinks you should put
your heart into whatever you do.
He describes his attraction to am-
bulance work this way:
"You turn on the siren and go
screaming out into the night. Your
patient, when you get there, has
a heartbeat of 120, blood pressure
of 80 over zip, respiration two, and
he's lost three units of blood -
which is a lot of blood. What he
needs is liquid. You stick an I.V.
in, and he swells up and takes a
breath. 'Ah,' he says, I feel fine.
Say, what happened to my arm?'
"Of course, it's not always like
that. But when you do save a man's
life, he might come up to you after
and say, 'Thank you. Thanks to
you I'm alive.' That's really every-
Both Alan and Kel dream of
starting their own ambulance
services. Alan plans to go through
medical school, and develop emer-
gency care "one step beyond where
it is now." Kel, who is a Cherokee.
Indian, wants to eventually estab-
lish a service on the reservation in
North Carolina where he grew up.
There is no emergency medical
care in the area, he explains.
"There was a veterinarian who
used to suture cuts and things like
that. But I heard recently that he
* * *
Jay, driving, flicks on the siren
and guns it. Inside the ambulance,
two stretchers are neatly made up
-white sheets, pale blue blankets.
The interior of the ambulance is
quiet except.for the tapping of two
oxygen tanks, which play a bell-
like counterpoint to the nervous
song of the siren.
The van pulls into the parking
lot of a small, modern apartment
development. A man stands outside
one of the doors, beckoning.
A 12-year-old girl sits on a couch
by herself, her arms crossed, her
legs stuck out straight in front of
her. On the other side of the
room, several adults and children
are sitting and standing, like a
jury. Jay squats next to the girl,
Kel stands at her other side.
"TELL HIM WHAT you took," a
"I didn't take nothing."
"That ain't what you told me."
"I told you to keep your hands off
"Did you spank her," a man
"Yes, I spanked her."
"Okay," Jay says to the girl
quietly, his voice more high-pitch-
ed than usual. "Let me ask you
something. We're not the police.
Did you take any pills or drink
A shake of the head, no.
"Can I check you out to make
sure?" Jay asks, taking the girl's
small wrist, and pulling out an in-
strument with a little light from
what looks like a big toolbox.
"She don't obey her mother and
father," a man rumbles.
"There's absolutely no sign that
she's taken anything," Jay an-
nounces after a minute.
"She took a bottle of aspirin
once," the man retorts. "You better
take her to the hospital and have
her checked out. I want her check-
down?" She shakes her head, no.
This isn't a medical problem. The
ambulance takes off at normal
speed for St. Joseph Hospital.
"Did you really take anything,"
Kel asks while taking her blood
"Just like me. If I'm upset about
something I tell- my wife, 'Oh, I'm
fine.' Are you sure you didn't take
anything?" A nod, yes.
"Would you tell me if you had?"
A nod, yes.
"I do believe you're telling me
the truth. Well, you know what?
You're healthier than I am." He
writes her vital signs on a slip of
"Do you like school?"
"No. But I like the boys at
"You got a boyfriend?" A nod,
"You got two boyfriends?" An-
other nod, yes, and a smile.
"You're pretty when you smile,
you know that- You should smile
AT ST. JOE'S, JAY describes the
situation to a doctor who hard-
ly looks at him, and who walks off
almost before Jay finishes speak-
ing. "He's heard it all before," Jay
"I've been through that whole
ball of wax myself with my par-
ents," Jay says to Kel as they
leave. "Who hasn't? It's up to the
two of them, the girl and her
mother, to straighten it out. She's
12 years old. Her mother spanks
her - that an invasion of her new-
found privacy. What kind of reac-
tion did she expect?"
The two men get back in the am-
bulance, to drive back to the post,
gas up, and drive to dinner. It's six
o'clock, but the day isn't half over
for the two men. Who can tell
what tonight will bring.
Somethinv everyone at Fontana-