Bart Walker nears 40 years in EMS
The firefighter/paramedic worked in Florida's "wild, wild west"
In 1968, when all 13 of Jacksonville, Florida’s ambulance services threatened to strike, Bart Walker was an eight-year-old fire buff who hung out with his heroes, the firefighters, whenever he could. “The details are a bit sketchy,” he says of that year, “but within one day, the fire department took over EMS.”
“The chiefs used their station wagons to transport patients until they could go out and buy real ambulances – modulances, the first box-type rescue units. It was pretty neat to watch a major metropolitan fire department get into the patient-care business.”
So would Bart, a decade later.
Cultivating a dual role in fire/EMS
As EMT certification became more of a prerequisite for essential services, Walker, who’d wanted to be a firefighter since he was three, couldn’t wait to start learning about slinging, swathing and anything else that would get him on the road with like-minded rescuers. “I got hold of the very first EMT text – the ‘orange book,’ from the AAOS (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons) – and read as much of it as I could,” he says.
By 17, the Jacksonville native was ready to begin EMT training at his local community college. “I was still in high school, but that was OK because I’d be 18 in time for the state test.”
With demand for EMTs greater than the supply, Walker took an EMS job in 1980 – interfacility work with a private ambulance service in Jacksonville. He kept preparing for the kind of 9-1-1 role he preferred. “We had lots of down time,” he remembers. “I tried to learn as much as I could about things they don’t teach you in school.”
Within a few months, he was riding for Middleburg in Clay County, 25 miles southwest of Jacksonville.
“Back then, the bigger cities had plenty of EMS,” Walker says, “but the surrounding areas relied mostly on volunteers. Lots of them weren’t available during the day, so Clay County hired four full-time EMTs 8 to 5. I got one of those spots.
“The labor laws were different then; we used to work days and volunteer at night – anything to help. We appreciated getting in on the ground floor of a paid EMS system.”
The first time Walker drove on a call was as a volunteer. “I had to pick up the ambulance at the fire station,” he recalls, “then meet my partner on the way.”
“The ride didn’t feel right. I finally realized it was because my knees were shaking so badly, my foot kept bouncing on the accelerator. I had to pull over and calm myself down.”
When the labor laws changed in 1981, Walker volunteered on the fire side. He tried, unsuccessfully, to attend fire and paramedic schools at the same time. “Eventually, I had to choose one. I picked paramedic because it was easier to get hired for EMS. Besides, I figured I could come back to fire later.”
EMS on the streets and in the air
Bart’s first job as a paramedic in 1981, was in rural Baker County – about 20 miles west of Jacksonville. “You had to learn really fast because there was only one ambulance on duty for the entire county. If they needed a backup, they had to call people from home.”
Walker says his first save as a medic was characteristic of the era’s hands-on interventions.
“I was in the back with a gentleman complaining of chest pain. All of a sudden he said, ‘I don’t feel so good’ and went into V-fib. Back then, the treatment of choice was a precordial thump. I whacked him twice and converted him. It scared the heck out of me, but he walked out of the hospital intact a couple of days later.”
In 1983, Walker added a part-time job with Life Flight, an aviation service out of Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville. “That introduced me to what’s now called critical care,” he says. “I learned a lot working with nurses and physicians in the hospital. It really helped my career.”
That career would feature not one but two moves to Marion County – an hour-and-a-half south of Jacksonville.
Keeping the ‘E’ in EMS
Walker says Marion County was like “the wild, wild West” when he started there in 1985. “Even though it was mostly rural, there was so much going on. It’s 1,600 square miles with a national forest and all kinds of trails – hiking, biking, horse and ATV. I kind of got into the world of technical rescue – extrication and things like that.”
Walker left Marion in 1993 to teach paramedicine in St. John’s County, then returned for good in ’98. Today, the 57-year-old father of three is a division chief for Marion County Fire Rescue. He’s particularly proud of a call his department handled two years ago.
“We have this park in a remote location with a freshwater lake. During a group outing, a woman was walking through the water and felt something brush her leg. She reached down and pulled out a four-year-old boy.
“Somebody called 9-1-1 while a couple of bystanders started CPR. We got there in 14 minutes and found the child breathing but unresponsive. He was transported by helicopter to what would now be called a trauma center.
“By day three of his stay, they weren’t giving him much hope and were talking about turning off machines. Then he suddenly made a huge improvement. He was discharged to a rehab center two weeks later with only a minor speech deficit.”
Walker praises bystanders for starting CPR and activating EMS for that near drowning, but also believes the public needs a better understanding of what 9-1-1 isn’t.
“Some folks think we’re the answer to everything. We’re not. Responding to a routine headache, for example, just ties up units unnecessarily. I think it’s up to us to get out into the community and clarify our mission.
“In the end, whether we’re working interfacility or 9-1-1, we’re here to help people when they need us.”
Makes as much sense as it would have 40 years ago.