One of Pittsburgh’s first paramedics retires as EMS chief
Pittsburgh’s top paramedic, Bob Farrow, has a tough time remembering most of the calls he’s answered during a career spanning more than four decades.
But his colleagues won’t let “Mad Dog” Farrow forget one in particular.
Farrow, who retired Tuesday as Pittsburgh’s Emergency Medical Services chief, said it came in 1975, his first year on the job. He was on ambulance duty in the city’s East End and answered a police radio call that to him sounded like, “man down, frothing at the mouth.”
When he arrived, he found a dog down that was frothing at the mouth.
“One of life’s most embarrassing moments,” Farrow said Tuesday with a laugh.
From that day on, his nickname was “Mad Dog” Farrow.
The joke comes from a place of respect.
Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich considers Farrow one of the best bosses he’s ever had. Hissrich worked as an EMS crew chief under Farrow at one point in his career. The former FBI agent said Farrow’s retirement is a “big loss” for the city.
“You always remember the good ones, and Bob was one of the top five. That includes the FBI and (Pittsburgh) Public Safety,” Hissrich said. “I’ve never seen him lose his temper. He’s just a very quiet person. He gets the job done, and he is well respected.”
Deputy EMS Chief Ron Romano, 61, of Stanton Heights will serve as interim EMS chief until Mayor Bill Peduto names Farrow’s successor. The job pays $114,496 annually.
Farrow, 61, of Stanton Heights was among 40 paramedics hired in 1975 to staff Pittsburgh’s first-ever EMS bureau. Only one — District Chief Barry Warble — remains now that Farrow has retired.
The city started with five ambulances. Paramedics worked daily shifts around the clock with equipment considered prehistoric today. They were permitted to give six types of medication, mostly heart and diabetic medicines. They now dispense more than 20 drugs, and their ranks have grown to include 161 paramedics and 24 emergency medical technicians working out of 14 stations.
The department has 16 ambulances and two heavy rescue trucks that respond to accidents. Paramedics are embedded with police SWAT teams. They staff the city’s river rescue service along with police. And most often, they respond to accidents and calls for people stuck in elevators.
“We get more calls for that than anything else,” Farrow said of the elevators.
Farrow was a teenager when he began working on ambulances. He passed a test to become an emergency medical technician at 15 and began working as a volunteer on ambulances in Plum at 16. At 17, he passed a paramedics exam at Columbia Hospital in Wilkinsburg. He started working for the city a year later.
Training has increased from a night course lasting about two months to a 10-month certification at Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side and Center for Emergency Medicine in Oakland.
Paramedics now communicate directly with doctors in hospitals and send them real-time patient data. Farrow said medics can determine what type of a heart attack a patient is having and relay that to a hospital, and doctors can have a heart catheterization laboratory ready to diagnose and treat the patient.
“It eliminated the wait when we get to the hospital,” Farrow said. “It’s saved a lot of lives.”
Farrow has no idea how many lives he and his crews have saved over the years. He lamented the fact that the job comes with with scant recognition.
“That’s probably the most frustrating part,” he said. “You’re doing it every day. Nobody gets the recognition they deserve.”
Farrow has no plans to look for another job but said it would be part-time if he does.
“I don’t know how to feel right now,” he said, thanking his co-workers who brought him a cake and pizza for lunch. “I’m kind of already regretting it.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.