The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: Pioneers of professional fire-rescue recall their start

By Ron Hayes
 
  

In the beginning, there was only “Sigafoo”— an orange and white ambulance with No. 41 on the side, nicknamed after the manufacturer.
At 2:23 p.m. on July 19, 1974, Sigafoo answered its first call, a fire alarm at the Boca Raton Hotel.
    And before the hour was out, the fire department’s first Mobile Intensive Care Unit had also responded to its first medical emergency, transporting a patient to the hospital from 1935 NW Second Ave.
    Boca Raton’s Advanced Life Support system began with that one EMS unit and 15 firefighters fresh from grueling paramedic classes in Miami.
    Today, there are 17 EMS units and every one of the department’s 207 firefighters is also a trained paramedic.
    On July 18, about 110 of the city’s current and former firefighter-paramedics gathered at the Police and Fire Complex on Congress Avenue for a luncheon to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sigafoo’s first call.
    There was a pipe and drums corps marching to Scotland the Brave. There was a prayer. There were Advanced Life Support trophies adorning each table in lieu of floral centerpieces. There was pasta and chicken and two kinds of cake. There were speeches.
    Mostly, of course, there were memories.
    “We were a ragtag bunch at first. We had to learn each other’s idiosyncrasies,” Bob Owens remembered. “We had to cover 36 square miles, so we were on the road almost all the time.”
    Owens was 31 when he came to work for Boca Raton in 1973, a West Palm Beach native and already a veteran of six years in the Palm Beach Fire Department. He’s 71 now, retired since 2002, and the man who nudged Fire Chief Tom Wood into organizing the event.
    “Oh, boy,” Owens said, “we handled everything from heart attacks to fingers smashed in a car door to delivering babies.”
    He remembered the woman in advanced labor, lying in the middle of a king-sized bed.
    “She had a vacuum sweeper on the floor by the bed and I stepped on it and turned it on and we couldn’t find the off switch. Well, she eased on over like a crab, reached down and shut it off, repositioned herself and the baby came.”
    Owens laughed at the memory.
    “We had a father and daughter pass away at Clint Moore Road and Military Trail,” he recalled. “It came in as a one-car crash, but when we got there it was two. Not all the cars had seat belts back then, and the dad had been thrown across the car and his weight crushed his daughter to death.”
    As Owens somberly reminisced, a hand reached for his and he looked up to see a familiar face.
    Retired Lt. Dave Appleton of Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue had driven up to join the celebration. Forty years ago, he was the veteran who trained Owens and the rest of that first crew at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami.
    “When you see a person on the ground,” Appleton taught them, “don’t just stand there and talk. Get down on your knee to talk to them.”
    As a slide show of faded snapshots played on the wall at her back, Mayor Susan Haynie reminded the crowd that she had come to work for the city’s engineering department in the same year Sigafoo first rolled.
    “When I represent the city in other parts of the state,” she said, “I tout our beauty and economic development. But without safety and security, we have nothing.”
    Chief Wood put the paramedics’ contribution in perspective.
    “In that first year, we handled an average of 56 emergency calls a month,” he told them. “In 2013, we had an average of 921 calls a month.”
    Today, the city’s Fire-Rescue department handles more heart attacks than fires.
    And then, as the old-timers gathered up front for a group photo, Assistant Chief Michael LaSalle watched from the side of the room. LaSalle was 24 when he joined the department in 1991. He’s 47 now.
    When the men having their pictures taken first brought emergency rescue services to Boca Raton, LaSalle was 7.
    “I’m honored to be here,” he said, “because these are the guys who paved the way for me and the guys in the future.”
    But Bob Owens said it best.
    “A lot of people are walking around the city today who may not have been here if not for the service we provided.”

ABOVE: Boca Raton’s first EMT Class photographed in 1973. TOP ROW: (l-r) Daryl Hurlburt (deceased). Reily Cooney, Don Dailey (deceased), Ken Gelboe, Bernie Tillson and Dave Cloran.  BOTTOM ROW: (l-r) Jim Slowiak, Bob Owens, Herbie Rothwell, Bruce Silk, John Eddinger, Lee Kingsmill, Bruce Kole and Bob Fosson. Photo provided

ABOVE: Boca Raton EMT Alumni photographed in 2014. (l-r) Bruce Silk, Dave Forsyth, Jim Slowiak, Ken Gelboe, Bruce Kowal, Herb Rothwell, Bob Owens, John Eddinger, Lee Kingsmill, Dave Cloran and  current Chief Tom Wood. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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