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Rep. Freddie Rodriguez, a standard bearer for EMS

Assembly Member Rodriguez shares his EMS origin story and role in California’s legislature

By Larry Beresford

California Assembly Member Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), who was working as an EMT in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley when he was first elected to the legislature in 2012, terms out at the end of November (the state’s legislators are only allowed to serve for 12 years; Rep. Rodriguez’ wife Michelle Rodriguez is now running for his soon-to-be-open seat).

Rep. Rodriguez, who chairs the legislature’s Emergency Management Committee, has been a standard bearer for EMS issues, including sponsoring AB40, passed last October for implementation this year. It directs the state’s Emergency Medical Services Authority to take urgent action to address “wall times,” with the aim of maximum ambulance patient offload times of 30 minutes for EMS crews delivering patients to the ED.

Leveling the playing field on hospital bed delays

“Speaking from first-hand experience, I know what it’s like to spend 12 hours standing up against the wall, wearing heavy boots and full gear, taking our ambulance out of service for 12 hours because the hospital was full, and we’re just standing there waiting,” he relates. “That’s why I fight for change. It (AB40) took a couple of years to pass, but we finally got it to a better place and signed into law.”

Rodriguez was a busy legislator, sponsoring 46 bills in the 2023-2024 session alone. Not everything he sponsored was enacted. But his wide-ranging advocacy has included bills to create an EMS Workers’ Bill of Rights to address worker’s compensation issues, mandating:

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Photo/Courtesy Rep. Freddie Rodriguez

— Adequate rest
— Meal breaks
— Protection against workplace violence
— Increased EAP counseling sessions
— Required peer support for private ambulance companies
— Standardized protective gear – providing body armor, safety equipment and training in their use
— Required training in violence prevention

He also raised a variety of other disaster preparedness concerns, including more resources for active shooter situations and directing school districts to teach hands-only CPR to students.

Rodriguez was also known for his commitment as a legislator to keep working EMT shifts for AMR when he’d go back to his district on weekends or after the legislative cycle ended in September. “For the first several years, I was able to still work in EMS. All they said was: ‘Hey, Freddie, just make sure your license is current, and basically work when you can.’” Eventually, however, his agency’s policies changed to require four shifts per month, which he couldn’t do while fulfilling responsibilities in Sacramento or, when home, meeting with constituents and attending public events.

What’s next for Rep. Freddie Rodriguez?

Rodriguez kept up his license and continuing education to stay up-to-date in the field. He ran for Mayor of Pomona this past March, but lost to the incumbent, Tim Sandoval. So what does the Assembly Member plan to do next?

“I think, because of everything I’ve done in and around emergency management from day 1 since I got here 11 years ago, hopefully I can still be helpful in one way or another,” he said. Perhaps Cal OES, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, or Cal Fire or any other emergency organization might see the value of a veteran EMT with political experience, with all the relationships he developed and the legislation he sponsored.

Might that include resuming EMT shifts, as some have already asked him to do? “Who knows? Maybe I will, part time or something,” he surmised. “Or maybe just be an ally and advocate in this arena.”

Rodriguez says he brought to the legislature a first-hand awareness of EMS concerns, “but I also became a good listener.” Hearing from so many people from all walks of life and so many organizations, he tried to look at the role as a first responder would, the same as when he’d show up at people’s houses. “I think I am good at reading people, and when people would come and talk to me in my office, I’d say, ‘OK, just tell me what your issue is. What’s the problem? How can we fix it?’”

Inspiration of “Emergency!”

Rodriguez didn’t start out with a dream to pursue a career in EMS. In high school, he showed an aptitude for interior design in craft and shop classes. He wanted to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, but he didn’t have the resources for that. Around the same time, he had watched an NBC-TV show called “Emergency!,” which chronicled a fictional EMS crew of LA County Fire Department Station 51, including paramedics John and Roy (actors Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe), from 1972 to 1978.

“Emergency!” inspired Rodriguez to take a 6-month EMT course at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California. “Lo and behold, that’s how it started. It was a hard course back then,” he says. Coursework included working 6-8 hours a week in a hospital emergency setting.

“I’ll never forget that first day at the hospital. We had a patient who cut his upper thigh using a circular saw. He came in all bandaged up and the doctor said, ‘Come on, Rodriguez. You’re going to help me unbandage this and clean out the wound.’ So I’m cutting off the gauze and as soon as it comes off the thigh just completely opens up. You could see all the muscle, the fat. I thought I was going to pass out,” he recalls.

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Photo/Rep. Freddie Rodriguez

The doctor asked if he was OK, and that was the moment he decided, “If I want to do this work, I’m going to not let it bother me. I’ll just do what I have to do.”

After graduation and applications to several companies, he got picked up by Medivac Ambulance in the city of El Monte. That was around 1984. “Back then in EMS, it seemed like all our calls were legitimate 911 calls, people who were really in distress,” Rodriguez noted. At times, the crew that was sent out didn’t include a paramedic, and it might turn out to be a cardiac arrest. “So we have to call the dispatcher and say we need an engine company because this person is a full arrest.”

When it was an unknown rescue or a 911 hang-up, he says, “sometimes we just went out by ourselves, and it got kind of crazy. Those experiences with you and your partner – they have stayed with me forever. Whether it’s a 12 or a 24 hour shift, you develop a relationship like no other with your partner. You get to know them probably better even than your spouse. Because you’re in these situations where you’ve got to act quickly, react and respond to what’s right in front of you.”

Rodriguez says he never expected to enter politics. “I got involved in something that led me to run for local office and then came to the state level.” He remembers his last 24-hour shift before getting sworn in as a legislator. It was very busy, and he wasn’t sure whether it would be his last shift, waiting for the call to come to be sworn in as a legislator.

“We had about 20 calls that night, a half dozen traumatic full arrests, just a bad, bad shift, a lot of death, pain and suffering. And I remember in the morning before I left the shop, I told my partner and folks at the station, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to come back.’ People told me, ‘Hey, just in case, Freddie, don’t forget about us.’” And he hasn’t, retaining many friends from that time.

Rodriguez was asked to sum up his views on where the field of EMS is heading, with all of its problems like overcrowded ERs, hospital boarding, understaffed EMS services, burnout, violence against personnel and the like. “I shouldn’t say it’s bad. I just think we’re living in a different time. And I think the (COVID) pandemic highlighted a lot of issues with our first responders: How do we respond? How do we transport? How do we treat?” Because of the changes in EMS and advances in treatment, there are so many more complexities in how crews must respond. Maybe not every call needs a Code 3 response.

He thinks the future of EMS could be very interesting, with all of the pilot programs being pursued. “There’s a lot of work already being done out there,” he says. How do we get the data from the pilot projects already being done and use it to develop new policies and procedures moving forward? “How do we start making the changes to address these issues? It’s going to take everybody’s input, everybody’s seat at the table.”

A heart for helping

The Assembly Member says he always had a heart and a passion to help people – whether as a first responder on the street or a legislator. “I never forgot where I came from. And I can say, to me personally, it’s reflected in my own family. You know, I have a son that’s a firefighter, another that’s a deputy sheriff and a daughter who is a respiratory therapist.”

Once he asked his son, the deputy sheriff, what made him choose that line of work. “He said, ‘Dad, it’s because of you. Remember when we were little, you would take us to all the pancake breakfasts at the fire station, the police open houses. And you would come home and talk about how you saved somebody’s life. And your friends were police officers, firefighters, nurses that we hung out with. It was like a big family.’”

“Back when I started, I think I was paid $3.10 an hour after going to school for 6 months. But it was a lot of money to me back then,” Rodriguez recalls. Then with a wife and kids to support, he had to put in a lot of overtime, including holidays at time-and-a-half. Eventually, he reached No. 1 in the company’s seniority, able to choose his shifts.

As he prepares to leave the California Legislature as its leading voice for EMS issues, Rep. Rodriguez hopes his experience will inspire others to follow his path and continue the advocacy. “Don’t let me be the only person doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I hope there are others that are encouraged or inspired by what I did,” he says.

“We’ve got to continue to advocate for public safety across the board. Now more than ever, their voices, their concerns need to be heard – especially when it comes to mental health for our first responders. Let’s make sure that we protect our workers, that they have such services provided to them if needed. Because it’s a challenging time, and we’ve got to take care of the people who take care of us.”

Larry Beresford is a freelance healthcare journalist with specialties in hospice and palliative medicine, hospitalists and hospital medicine, and emergency medicine. He has contributed articles to EMS World Magazine, ACEP Now and Medscape. He lives in a 55+ co-housing community in Oakland, Calif., with his wife Rose Mark, a writer and retired teacher, not far from their two grandsons. He has experience as a hospice volunteer and a published poet.