New Hospital on Wheels (May, 1938)

In 1938 New York had roughly seven million people and the FDNY had ONE ambulance. Wow.

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New Hospital on Wheels

By John E. Lodge

BRINGS FIRST AID TO MEN WHO FIGHT NEW YORK’S FIRES FIVE-ALARM FIRE! Thirty-five engines and trucks racing through the streets before dawn. Three hundred crack smoke eaters battling a block-square conflagration. That was the scene, a few weeks ago, when 3,000,000 feet of lumber in a big Brooklyn, N.Y., yard turned into billowing clouds of smoke and darting streamers of flame.

For hours, the firemen fought to keep the blaze from spreading. One man was carried out with a broken leg. Another was hurried from the scene with blood streaming from a gashed hand. Still others staggered about with eyes so inflamed they could hardly see. By the time the blaze was under control, twenty-one firemen were on the injured list. In aiding them, New York City’s new $10,000 fire ambulance—an amazingly complete, ninety-mile-an-hour hospital on wheels—played an important part. The big fire was its spectacular initiation into service.

With funds raised last year by a pageant and show at Madison Square Garden, the new machine has been equipped with virtually every aid for saving lives and treating injuries sustained by firemen. Stationed near Borough Hall, in Brooklyn, it has a roving assignment, responding to every serious fire within an area of nearly 200 square miles.

Under the red, rakish hood of the 7,260-pound machine, a twelve-cylinder engine develops 110 horsepower. In emergencies, it will carry the ambulance at speeds up to a mile and a half a minute. Above the driver’s compartment, a red searchlight swings from side to side automatically while the machine is in motion, providing a warning signal that can be seen for long distances. In addition to the regular headlights, special fog lights are carried to pierce mist and rain.

If you slip into the seat behind the wheel of the new machine, you notice that everything is designed so one man can operate the siren, the bell, and the radio, as well as run the ambulance. Your knee presses against a plunger on the dashboard. This enables you to keep the siren going while you operate the throttle with your foot. Near-by is a second plunger. A jerk on this sets the heavy bell at the nose of the car clanging. Radio orders are picked up through earphones worn by the driver, and a two-way system, similar to that used on airliners, permits a running fire of orders and reports between the mobile hospital and the department’s communications center located in Central Park, where it will be safe in the event of a city-wide conflagration.

It is the interior of the ambulance, however, that presents the greatest variety of novelties and makes it unlike any other machine of its kind. The rear door closes against a rubber cushion which seals the interior and permits air-conditioning. Two vents, one for cold and the other for warm air, enable the surgeon inside to regulate the temperature to suit the needs of his patient. The warm air comes from a chamber heated by water from the engine. Venetian blinds keep out the glare of the sun in the daytime, while ten 21-candle-power lamps— four on each side and two in front—provide indirect illumination for the interior after dark.

Behind the driver’s compartment is a stainless-metal sink with hot and cold running water. Below, enameled drawers are packed with surgical instruments and medical supplies. There are clippers and shears, tweezers and forceps, magnifying spectacles for examining eyes, and tourniquets of a dozen varieties. Ranged along the table beside the sink are a row of clips, each holding a bottle of ointment or oil for use in treating burns. They can be snatched from the clips in an instant when an emergency arises.

Virtually everything the new ambulance contains has been specially designed to conserve space. Blood-pressure gauges and other aids for the surgeon have been made in the most compact possible form. Midget sterilizers can be plugged into a wall socket above the sink to provide boiling water. When the fire surgeon leaps into the new ambulance at the beginning of a run, he has to be prepared for anything. He never knows what emergencies lie ahead.

A FEW weeks ago, a large rubber-storage plant burned on the outskirts of Brooklyn. Explosion after explosion showered the apparatus and the men with burning rubber. Then, in the midst of treating burns, the surgeon found far more serious cases on his hands. One of the great hoses got out of control. These mighty tubes sometimes pour a ton or more of water a minute from the nozzle. The kick of the high-pressure stream shoves the nozzle to the rear. To keep it in place, the firemen have to tug forward with all their might. In this instance, the hose had broken from their grasp and was causing a lot of trouble.

Writhing like a giant snake, it lashed the heavy metal nozzle back and forth. Four firemen were bowled over like tenpins. One had his skull fractured. Another was struck in the stomach and sent to the hospital for two months. When the new rolling hospital was de- signed, experts thought ahead and equipped it to meet any emergency which might arise.

An instance of the care with which the interior was planned is the small electric fan that keeps the air circulating within the ambulance. The blades of the fan are made of rubber. Thus, if a lurch or a sudden stop throws the surgeon into its blades, they bend back and do not injure him as they would if they were made of metal.

BY LIFTING tubular frames into place, the interior of the ambulance can be turned into a miniature ward with two comfortable cots for seriously injured men. During a run, if the doctor needs help, as in the case of a bad hemorrhage or of a patient going violently insane, he can signal the driver by pressing a buzzer button. At such a signal, the car would immediately be brought to a stop and the driver would dash to the back of the ambulance to give needed assistance to the physician.

Under the cots are stored the extra tanks of oxygen for the resuscitating apparatus. Firemen who are overcome by smoke often have their jaws clenched so that special mechanisms are needed to open them and insert the oxygen tube. In the old days, in such an emergency the injured man had a tooth knocked out with a hammer and chisel to provide space for inserting the tube. Now, a simple screw device pries the clenched teeth apart. The small end is pushed between the teeth and the device is then turned in the manner of a corkscrew to force it inward and open the clenched jaws. In the hands of a skilled surgeon the operation takes but a few minutes.

ANOTHER recent innovation is the use of metal-tube splints for broken arms and legs. Several are carried in the blanket compartment which is reached through a door on the side of the ambulance. But the most important recent advance is a rigid stretcher. It has folding arms at the back which lock in place, holding it firm, and a trio of wide straps which buckle over the patient and prevent him from rolling off even when the stretcher is tilted sidewise or upside down. On such a litter, injured persons can be brought out of burning buildings through narrow openings and can be lowered vertically to the ground from upper stories. It was developed by Capt. Joseph F. Dunleavy, the man in charge of the new ambulance, under the direction of Commissioner John J. McElligott.

More than 1,000 times a year, the new streamline, roving hospital will carry aid to the firemen of America’s biggest city. Compact and complete, its equipment will be instrumental in saving the lives of men whose business it is to save the lives of others.

  1. Rick Auricchio says: March 17, 200812:47 pm

    One ambulance? Well, that’s one way to control the population…

  2. Slim says: March 17, 20082:38 pm

    “More than 1,000 times a year, the new streamline, roving hospital will carry aid to the firemen of America’s biggest city.”

    It sounds like it wasn’t meant to be used for the general public.

  3. David says: October 3, 200811:44 am

    The FDNY ambos were at those times used primarily to transport injured firemen from the scene, I think in some cases they did carry “civilians” as well, but the main customers were the ffs
    At those times the protective clothing was very simple (as you can see), they didn’t carry any breathing sets (except for the rescue companies), so the injuries were very common

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