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EMS at 50: A Look How It Happened

Assemblyman Larry Townsend (left) and State Senator James Q. Wedworth (right), sponsors of the WedworthTownsend Act, join with Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in watching Governor Ronald Reagan sign the historic bill into law. (Photo/Los Angeles County)

The Wedworth-Townsend Act signed on this day in 1970

Fifty years ago today, California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the first paramedic act into law at the state level in the United States. The Wedworth-Townsend Paramedic Act set in motion a new era for emergency medical services across the country.

In early 1970, things were heating up in Los Angeles as new technology and procedures were being implemented around mobile cardiac response. Doctors Walter Graf and J. Michael Criley had successfully trained paramedics to deliver prehospital care to heart attack patients without direct physician intervention in the ambulance (mobile coronary care unit) and transport those patients to the hospital for further treatment and recovery, resulting in increased survival rates for the patient.

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The success of these paramedics working in the field also brought with it inherent risks. Issues from the administration of narcotics or the need to intubate to the crossing of jurisdictions and operational boundaries all provided a challenge. Doctors Criley and Graf teamed up with Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn to both formalize and legalize the new practice. Together, with input from others working in the emerging mobile pre-hospital care discipline, Criley and Graf drafted what would become the first paramedic act in the country. 

As the draft legislation took shape, the team needed to find someone to present the bill to the state representatives. Supervisor Hahn worked through his political network and the team approached Assemblyman Larry Townsend and Senator James Q. Wedworth to present the bill in the house. In writing to the governor, Senator Wedworth sumed up the Wedworth-Townsend Act:

Senate Bill 95B would permit paramedics to perform certain specified functions, as listed in Section 1482 of the bill. It would require the paramedics to receive special training in cardiac and noncardiac emergency care in a program certified by the County Health Official.

 The bill also defines the scope of function and practice of the “mobile intensive care paramedic” and provides that no act of an intensive care paramedic shall impose liability  upon any entity or organization, members of their medical staff, nurses or other employees if good faith is exercised

After initial reservations from the governor, the bill was signed July 15, 1970, and put into effect immediately. Soon after, other states started to pass their own versions of a paramedic act, providing protective legislation for trained pre-hospital care providers.

“Today we celebrate the hard work and foresight necessary to write and pass the Wedworth-Townsend Act,” said National EMS Museum Director Kristy Van Hoven. “We are inspired by the tireless efforts of our colleagues in the field who carry on the traditions of innovation, education, and sacrifice for the good of our patients. We thank them for keeping Californians safe and inspiring colleagues across the country.”

California’s EMS history is also available online via the National EMS Museum’s virtual exhibition California Responds: The Legacy of California’s Emergency Medical Services which can be accessed at www.emsmuseum.org/collections. This was made possible by generous donations and support from Global Medical Response, Hall Ambulance of Bakersfield and the California EMS Agency (EMSA). 

The California Ambulance Association is also dedicating an entire edition of its print and online magazine, The Siren, to commemorate the anniversary. It is planned to tell the story of California’s EMS development in words and pictures as well as highlight the leading figures that have played a part in California’s rich EMS history. Randolph Mantooth has signed on to write the foreword of the magazine.