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Emergency Workers Recall Working the Blizzard of 1978

Current Boston EMS Superintendent Dianne Cavaleri remembers medicine being delivered to residents by snowmobile, including insulin to diabetics.

Emergency Workers Recall Working the Blizzard of 1978

The following was written by Jennifer Mehigan, Director of Media Relations for Boston EMS.

Thirty-five years ago this week, Boston was engulfed in snow. More than 27 inches fell in a 24-hour period at one point. The snow, and in particular the wind, crippled the city and the region. For many residents, it was an adventure. For members of Boston EMS, it was an experience of a lifetime.

“We worked for four days, 24-plus hours straight that first day and then double shifts,” recalls Superintendent Dianne Cavaleri, who was a 23-year-old EMT at the time. “Ambulances were stopped, physically couldn’t move, after the 26th hour.” Depending on what area of the city you worked would dictate how busy you stayed. In the inner city Boston EMS was busy.

That week in 1978, Boston EMS had five ambulances staffed with 20 EMTs. Today, a peak shift has 19 BLS ambulances, staffed by EMTs, and five ALS ambulances (staffed by paramedics) and approximately 65 total staff members on duty. Cavaleri remembers during the blizzard staff couldn’t get in to relieve them. The mayor and governor had made emergency declerations and no one who was at work was going home.

“We were all pretty young back then and there was some sense of adventure,” she said. Cavaleri said crews continued to take 911 calls, but some calls would take an hour or more to get to. And once they arrived, crews often had to shovel walkways and stairwells to get to the house to get to the patient. She said neighbors often helped out, as well as police and fire personnel. “People for the most part were good and doing what they could to help us out...In many locations the snow was waist deep.”

Every call was labor intensive and contributed greatly to extended response times. Cavaleri remembered one call in particular where her crew had to walk two blocks in and one block over to get to the patient. The winds were howling and they had a young adult victim actively seizing. The crew lifted her in a chair over their shoulders to get her back out to the ambulance. 

Former Boston EMS EMT Tom Kenney, now a lieutenant with the Hyannis Fire Department, also worked during the great blizzard of 78. “I can remember being on Beacon Hill on Tuesday afternoon with my ‘78 Ford 4-wheel drive pick-up truck and moving a woman in cardiac arrest down to Cambridge Street. The ambulance couldn't make it up, so we put her in the back and did CPR until I could drive down.”

“I remember everybody doing the right thing when we were out on calls, helping people, looking out for one another and carrying people, sick people, through waist deep snow,” Kenney added.

There was no mutual aid, because surrounding cities and towns were in the same boat. “The sense was do what you’ve got to do until can’t do it anymore,” Cavaleri said. And at one point Boston EMS staff was told they would be deployed outside the city, but that never happened, she said.

The crews slept in a makeshift bunk room. They ran out of blankets for patients on the ambulances. Cavaleri said crews were often “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” They borrowed shovels from neighbors to dig people out, “We didn’t have a lot of medical equipment let alone something like a shovel on the ambulance then.” 

“We finally caught a break around the 25th hour into our shift, but didn’t get food for ourselves for about 36 hours,” she said. “And when we did it was boxes of cheese, sandwiches with one slice of cheese, and a box of apples.” 

Cavaleri was assigned to A-6 in the South Boston area of the city and said the way the winds were blowing made Day Boulevard clear for most of the storm, as the wind pushed snow across the road and into huge piles. Eventually the snow took over making that road impassable as well.

At one point, she and her partner drove around a corner and straight into a 9-foot snowdrift. The ambulance was stuck and neither could open the doors. She said people who saw what happened got the attention of a front-loader operating nearby and he was able to pull the ambulance out. Scenes like this were playing out all over the city as on by one the city’s ambulances became stuck. Crews would wait hours to be picked up and brought back to “the main” - the city’s only EMS station.

Cavaleri remembers a cement fish pier off Castle Island “was twisted like a pretzel” in the aftermath of the storm. And Kenney recalls “the car at the gate to Boston Edison, (an) upside down Pinto, (had) 15 feet up on a snow pile. Stayed there until it melted down to street level, literally weeks before they towed it.”

The National Guard was deployed bringing equipment and vehicles, including military ambulances. Their “ambulances” were able to move, but there was no equipment on them, and no lights or sirens, Cavaleri said. Staff had to yell at people in the street to move when they drove through. “The National Guard guys assigned to us were great and I can’t tell you how many calls we did back then in those units.” 

Cavaleri remembers medicine being delivered to residents, insulin to diabetics for example, by snowmobile. She said roads coming into the city were closed and staffed by State Police and MPs. You had to produce an ID that showed you were an essential or emergency worker. “We would pick up nurses, cops and fireman that we saw trying to get to work and drive them as close as we could,” Kenney recalled. 

Today, Boston EMS has evolved into a state of the art, nationally recognized service. Technology is much better at anticipating storms and shovels are standard issue on the ambulances. When a major storm is predicted, the service has the ability to plow to clear the EMS stations and assist the ambulances when they run into touble.

We can never fully prepare as we witnessed in the past with Hurricane Katrina and most recently Hurricane Sandy. But Boston EMS has made great strides and most certainly learned from the infamous Blizzard of '78, and the crews that worked it will never forget what it was like to be out in the height of the storm. 

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