Emergency Communications Pioneer Stephen Gamble Dies at 78


Jocelyn Y. Stewart | | Friday, April 4, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Stephen W. Gamble, who designed an emergency communication network in Southern California and was an influential voice in the discourse on healthcare issues, died Sunday at San Gabriel Valley Medical Center in San Gabriel. He was 78.

The cause of death was cardiovascular disease and kidney failure, said his son, Mark Gamble.

In his role as president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, Gamble spent more than three decades helping to improve healthcare in the region.

One of Gamble's most far-reaching and enduring innovations came about in 1970. After an airplane crashed in Santa Monica Bay, Gamble noted the lack of communication among paramedics, police, hospital staff and other emergency personnel. Unaware that victims were being brought to their emergency rooms, hospital staffers were not prepared. Families of victims did not know where the injured were being taken.

"He could see that this relatively small incident could become a catastrophe on a larger scale if there was no integration of communication between emergency responders," said Jim Barber, president and chief executive of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.

"Basically, he looked at that situation and created what now is the gold standard of inter-connectivity between all these agencies for the purpose of coordinating emergency response."

Former President Nixon awarded Gamble a commendation in 1972 for his work in designing what is now known as REDDINET, a dedicated system of communication for all emergency personnel. Beyond its role in disasters, the system is used every day by paramedics in Southern California to determine if an emergency room is full or has the capacity to accept a patient.

In the 1980s, when understanding of HIV and AIDS was low and fear ran high, Gamble became an authority on the disease, then educated healthcare industry leaders.

"Steve was out in front speaking to groups," said David Langness, vice president of public relations for Fraser Communications, who worked with Gamble for many years. "He was an advocate for AIDS treatment when it was very politically untenable. . . . He understood AIDS was not a gay question but a healthcare question."

During the late 1950s, a time when hospitals were less regulated, Gamble and others created "Guiding Principles for Hospitals." The document provided facilities with guidelines for charging patients, many of whom still paid out of pocket and were charged fees that bore little relationship to the actual cost of their care.

"It was a voluntary, coordinated effort led by Steve to bring some sense to what at the time was a senseless billing and charging situation," Barber said.

Born Aug. 3, 1929, in Bournemouth, England, Gamble moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 11 and spent his childhood in Santa Cruz. After graduating from high school, Gamble enrolled in Hartnell College in Salinas, where he studied journalism.

In 1950, he was drafted into the Army. After his discharge, he entered Woodbury University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1956. Two years later, he was hired at what later became known as the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. In 1994, after 36 years, he retired.

Gamble, who was instrumental in the passage of key California legislation related to healthcare and the creation of new healthcare-related companies, earned a reputation during his career as "an original thinker, somebody who did not let obstacles stand in his way," Langness said.

In addition to his son Mark, Gamble is survived by his wife, Patricia, of Alhambra; another son, Dana Gamble of Santa Barbara; a daughter, Tricia Russell of Las Vegas; a sister, Helen-Mary Thomas, of Washington, Mo.; a brother, John Hamber of Phoenix; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. today at Emmaus Lutheran Church, 840 S. Almansor St., Alhambra. Memorial donations may be sent to the Stephen W. Gamble Endowment, National Health Foundation, 515 S. Figueroa St., Suite 1300, Los Angeles, CA 90071, or Woodbury University, 7500 Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510, c/o President's Office.

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