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Firefighters first became paramedics in cities like Tampa. Holly Boggs remembers.

Boggs was the second woman hired as a firefighter with the Tampa Fire Department and soon after, she was state-certified for emergency medical care.
Holly Boggs (left) worked as a paramedic (and firefighter) for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. She was one of the first firefighters to be state-certified as a paramedic.
Holly Boggs (left) worked as a paramedic (and firefighter) for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. She was one of the first firefighters to be state-certified as a paramedic. [ Courtesy Holly Boggs ]
Published May 16
Updated May 16

Today is the first day of EMS Week 2021, established to honor paramedics and emergency medical technicians for what they do. Bill Wade, retired captain and president of the Tampa Firefighters Museum, said Tampa was in the vanguard of training its firefighters to be paramedics, starting in the 1960s and becoming more formalized in the 1970s.

“Los Angeles, California, Miami, Florida and Tampa, Florida are recognized as some of the first city fire departments to get involved in providing paramedic services to the public,’' Wade said. Now all Tampa firefighters have to become certified paramedics within three years of being hired, he noted.

Holly Boggs was the second woman to be hired as a firefighter with the Tampa Fire Department, now called Tampa Fire Rescue. She joined in 1978 and soon became one of the first firefighters to be state-certified as a paramedic. She spent her career on rescue and as a supervisor, retiring in 2008. Boggs, 70, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about her experiences.

Why did you want to become a paramedic?

Not too long after I came on job, a few days after I was on the job, they put me on the rescue car one day, and I remember one of the first calls we went to, was a shooting. You know, I don’t know nothing from nothing, and I’m like – There was a TV show on at the time called Operation: Lifeline. Now, this is not a scripted show, it was like a real-life ER program back then. And I used to love to watch that show. … When we took the patient in, we’re standing in the ER while they’re working on him, and they had to cut his chest open, and I was standing over in the corner just looking, watching and thinking, wow, this is so cool. This is what I want to do.

Many people might not find that cool to watch.

I guess it’s no different than somebody that decides they want to be a surgeon or a doctor, or anything like that.

The other main factor. This sounds crazy, but at the time if you were in combat (fire-fighting), which I was at first, unless there was a fire, you didn’t go anywhere. And that makes for a very long 24-hour day. ... And I was, like, super-bored and I just needed to be doing something that would keep me busy. And being on the rescue car did that.

Holly Boggs in 1986 teaching CPR.
Holly Boggs in 1986 teaching CPR. [ Photo: Courtesy Holly Boggs ]

How did you handle traumatic experiences?

It may sound horrible to somebody that’s not been there, but humor is a real good way to cope with some of the things that you see and do on the job. …

I do know there were a few calls, things that I will never forget as far as traumatic type things to me. …

Eventually I was on our first incident stress debriefing team when we first started one to deal with that kind of stuff. Because when I first came on, you just dealt with it, right? If something really bothered you, most of the time you didn’t even talk about it, because you didn’t want people to think, aw, what a baby. I’m not just talking about me. I’m talking about men.

What traumatized you?

I went to a murder one time. It was actually a murder-rape and it came in just as a “person down.” So just me and my partner went and found this girl, and that, that gave me post-incident stress. And I know that’s what it was because when I went to the training to be on the debriefing team, I had all of those things. … Some people can’t sleep. Some people think about it all the time. I would be driving down the road and all of a sudden I’d have a flash of the scene in my head.

How did the debriefing teamwork?

Whenever there was… like a drowning involving a child or something like that, something out of the ordinary; say several people died in a house fire or a super-bad wreck or something, they would call the team together.

They would call you out in the middle of the night, and we’d end up going and having a debriefing with the people that were involved. And basically, what it all boiled down to was to get everybody that was there and let everybody go around the room and talk about it. …

It can get pretty overwhelming at some point if you just do it and do it and then there’s no break. I finally, myself, had to leave the team because it was like, okay, I don’t think I can sit through another one of these things. Because people don’t just talk, they cry. They go back to their years in the service and Vietnam and things like that.

Holly Boggs (middle) and some of her coo-workers  in the cover M.D. News Magazine.
Holly Boggs (middle) and some of her coo-workers in the cover M.D. News Magazine. [ photo: Courtesy Holly Boggs ]

When you first joined the Tampa Fire Department, did you have to put up with prejudice and harassment from men?

I did not have that bad a time. You have your individuals that want to get in your face and say, “You’re going to carry me out of a building?’' And it’s usually one of the biggest guys on the job. And I said, “Well, I don’t know, but there’s probably a lot of other guys on this job that couldn’t do that, and I passed all the tests that everybody else had to pass.’' But on the whole I would say that my experience was that most of the guys cleaned up their act when I was in the station. They went out of the way to not cuss and stuff like that. But like I said, there was a few. There’s always a few. But you know, back then, there was no such thing as sexual harassment or anything like that, so I just dealt with it. I had three brothers growing up, so I know how to get along with guys.

Did you get many calls that weren’t really emergencies?

Everybody had their regulars that they’d go to. We had regulars. I was at several different stations throughout the years, and I can recall this one little old lady down in Sulphur Springs, and she would call us out at, like, one or two in the morning and wanted to know if we could turn her air-conditioner down, or things like that. Because basically she was lonely. And so we’d go in, we’d turn her air down or whatever and talk to her a little bit. But everybody has those people.