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Cover Story - Posted November 25, 2016 10:40 a.m.
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Photos by Craig Stidham

Everyday Heroes

Amarillo’s first responders are committed to safeguarding the city

Amarillo’s police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services personnel occupy an unusual place in the community. They are highly trained. They are well-respected. They are deeply appreciated, because their jobs revolve around keeping the city and its residents out of harm’s way.

At the same time, most Amarilloans probably prefer not to encounter these brave professionals during their daily lives. A day during which an average citizen comes face-to-face with a law enforcement officer or first responder is probably not a good day.

To learn more about these men and women who serve our community, we spoke to the leaders of these local agencies: Chief Ed Drain of the Amarillo Police Department, Chief Jeff Greenlee of the Amarillo Fire Department, and Will Hendon, operations manager of Amarillo Medical Services. Each provides valuable perspective and insight into what it’s like to be one of Amarillo’s police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel – and how hard these everyday heroes work to keep the city safe.

Ed Drain, Chief of Police
In 1887, when Amarillo grew out of a tent city along the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad, it was as lawless as any town site in the Old West. The first law enforcement officers were county sheriffs. Amarillo’s Hughes Street is named for J.E. Hughes. This early resident, the grandfather of local icon Sybil Harrington, served as Potter County sheriff from 1899 to 1910. Also a developer, Hughes named Ong and Hayden streets after other early law enforcement officers. As Amarillo grew, it hired a city marshal to work alongside the county sheriff and deputies.

In May of 1914, the passing of a city ordinance led to the creation of the Amarillo Police Department, with John Speed serving as Chief of Police and overseeing five horse-mounted patrolmen. By the end of the next decade, the department had grown to 53 officers and included a couple of Model T Fords that had been converted into patrol vehicles.

Today, the Amarillo Police Department includes 370 officers (and a few canines – see below) serving a population of around 200,000 within the city limits. After the retirement of Chief Robert Taylor earlier this year, Plano Assistant Police Chief Ed Drain was named Amarillo’s interim police chief in June. In October, Drain dropped the interim title and became the city’s new chief of police. A native of Longview, Texas, Drain joined Plano’s police force in 1994. During that time, he also served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. After being recalled to active duty, he was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005, during which time he was awarded the Bronze Star.

Plano has a larger population than Amarillo but covers a smaller area. One of the first things Drain noticed here is how easy it is for police officers to move around the city. “There are no toll roads or HOV [high-occupancy vehicle] lanes,” he says. “I love that. The difference in the traffic from a first responder perspective is one big major difference.” He also appreciates that most of Amarillo’s police officers hail from this area. “That has some advantages. These guys grew up here. They grew up with the good people and the criminals,” Drain explains. Familiarity with the city and its residents – good and bad – are extremely beneficial to solving crimes. “When someone does something, there’s a sketchy description of the car and the person. Usually within hours, someone has found the guy and found the car and knows what apartment he’s in. They’re good at that.”

Soon after being named to the position, Drain led APD in hiring a new class of officers. In addition to state-mandated physical, educational and training requirements, the chief says his department is looking for critical thinking skills, character and integrity. “They’ve got to be truthful,” he says, because police officers often have to testify in court. “If a police officer doesn’t have integrity and has a record of lying about things related to the job, then they’re really no use as a police officer.”

He says other intangibles are also critical to the job, like the ability to keep calm in critical situations. “Things can be going quietly and then break out into chaos. You’ve got to be able to keep your head around you and keep yourself, other officers, and citizens safe. Make sure you don’t contribute to the problem and make it worse,” he says.

Though the public may view police officers as tough, no-nonsense professionals, Drain prefers officers who also have what he calls “soft skills” like empathy. “You are able to see from the other person’s perspective, and not just our law-enforcement perspective,” he says. Empathetic officers won’t necessarily change their mind based on another’s perspective, Drain explains, but will listen and seek to understand – with the knowledge that police calls often are necessary on what may be the worst day of a person’s life.

Though new to the job, Drain is already recognizing the strengths of the APD culture and working to shore up a few weaknesses. Internally, he has implemented more public recognition of promotions and award ceremonies for officers and employees. Externally, he has begun to emphasize outreach and community policing by assigning eight officers and a supervisor to focus on four strategic neighborhoods in Amarillo. “We are trying to get more first responders out on the street,” Drain says. Rather than these officers driving from one service call to the next, they can spend more time interacting with residents. He calls this “proactive policing” and says the intent is to reduce crime before it happens. “This will give them time to engage in problem-solving in their beat by talking to the business owners and homeowners and residents to find out what problems are going on. It makes those neighborhoods more resilient to crime.”

In the future, Drain also intends to focus on reducing response times for officer call-outs and reducing fatal traffic accidents. “We have quite a few traffic fatalities here,” he says. “There are a number of reasons for that, and I think one of the biggest is too much drinking and driving. We are trying to put more of an enforcement of that, too.”

Some things in his department, however, don’t need improvement. “They are really good at responding to critical incidents like SWAT callouts and bomb threats,” Drain says. “I’m amazed at how good the APD is at catching bad guys.”

Jeff Greenlee, Fire Chief
It seems every city has a story about its Big Fire, and for Amarillo, it occurred on May 22, 1901. That day, a quarter of the city’s businesses burned – including 17 on Polk Street alone – due to a devastating combination of high winds and timber construction. Amarillo’s volunteer fire department, the Amarillo Hook and Ladder Company, had been established in 1897. Those volunteers and hundreds of others gathered to fight the fires, with little success.

That fire spelled the end of wood-frame buildings downtown, as business owners rebuilt with brick-and-mortar construction in the years afterward. It also spelled the end of the volunteer fire department. In 1903, the 2,000 residents of Amarillo organized a paid fire department, appointing Sieb Houston its first fire chief. The department installed 25 fire hydrants and purchased 1,000 feet of hose, which was carried by a hose wagon pulled by two horses. In 1905, taxpayers authorized $10,000 to build the first fire station and added the first motorized truck in 1911.

Today, the fire department consists of 16 trucks and 263 firefighters, operating out of 13 stations under the direction of Fire Chief Jeff Greenlee. Appointed to the position in 2012, Greenlee became an Amarillo firefighter in 1993. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of this department and serve the citizens in this community,” he says. “The fire department is a family. It’s more than just the job. It’s a commitment you make to the community and your second family. We all rely on each other so much.”

Just like the department’s numbers have expanded over the years, so has its role. Greenlee estimates that his busiest stations respond to around 10 calls a day, and 70 percent of those may be medically related. During any 911 medical emergency call, fire stations are alerted in addition to AMS ambulance personnel. Every firefighter has basic Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, says Greenlee. An additional 80 are more advanced EMTs, and 26 are fully fledged paramedics. The 911 response overlap between firefighters and AMS ensures that life-saving assistance arrives as quickly as possible.

The volume of calls keeps increasing as residents have become more familiar with the 911 system. The year 2000 saw a total of 8,200 calls. Last year’s calls required 18,500 responses.

Beyond medical emergencies and fires, the fire department has also assumed other responsibilities over the years. “Whenever something new comes we take it on,” says Greenlee. For instance, the fire department’s Special Response team has been charged with handling hazardous material situations in and around Amarillo. “It used to just be chemicals, but now we’ve added in weapons of mass destruction. Those come in chemical, biological and radiological forms,” the chief says. Firefighters have also begun active shooter scenario training with APD, and rescue response remains a significant part of the department’s work. “This includes swift-water rescue, contained space, trench rescue, building collapse, [and] rope rescue,” lists Greenlee. “We have to be proficient in all these.”

That ever-changing expertise, along with the physical nature of the job, makes firefighting an incredibly demanding career. “It’s not only physical and mental but it requires being away from family,” says Greenlee. Firefighters report to their stations at 7:30 each morning for a 24-hour shift, followed by a day off, followed by another 24-hour shift. “It’s such a commitment because you’re doing more than just an eight-to-five job. The physical aspect is obvious when you watch them working a fire, but the mental and emotional part may remain hidden. Firefighters are exposed to traumatic events over a career. Those can have a cumulative effect and wear on a person,” he says.

Beyond the commitment and bravery required to save lives in dangerous situations, Greenlee says a firefighter must show integrity at all times. “We deal with the public on their worst days and we still have to be professionals,” he says. “We go into people’s houses all the time and the public has to have that trust. It’s a gift to be able to hold that trust.”

While the job of a firefighter may have changed since 1903, some things haven’t: Grateful Amarillo residents still sometimes bake cookies and bring them to the firehouse. “Most of us who do this don’t expect a lot in return, but it’s nice to get a thank-you note or cookies,” says Greenlee. “We took this on because it’s a calling to have this profession. But we don’t expect special treatment.”

Actually, there’s one type of special treatment Chief Greenlee does request from residents. He’d love to see a more widespread commitment to yielding vehicles when the lights and sirens of an approaching fire truck appear on Amarillo’s streets. “Some people have gotten away from that,” he says. “If people will slow and get to the right, that’s a huge help.” Steering a large truck through Amarillo’s busy streets can take time. Whether responding to a burning building or a life-and-death 911 call, Amarillo’s highly trained firefighters know those precious seconds count.

Will Hendon, AMS Operations Manager
Amarillo’s first ambulances were hearses. In the event of a car accident or traumatic injury, the vehicles owned by the city’s funeral homes were the only ones large enough to transport a horizontal body. For instance, Boxwell Brothers Funeral Home in Amarillo offered ambulance services until as late as 1970. “There were no city contracts and no ambulance permits,” says Will Hendon, operations manager at Amarillo Medical Services (AMS). Back then, competing hearses would often race to the scene of an accident. “Whoever got there first got the body. If the person was alive, they’d go to the hospital. If not, they’d go to the morgue.”

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s commission on highway safety drew attention to the need for roadside emergency care. This led to the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which created mandatory federal safety standards for vehicles – and changed how ambulances were used.

Before then, ambulances were “a giant taxi on wheels,” says Hendon, primarily working to transport a sick or injured person to a hospital. Today, ambulances are much more than that. “Essentially it’s an emergency room on wheels, but without surgery capabilities. These guys are trained to treat any emergency you can think of from a three- to four hundred-page protocol book, all designed by physicians.” Hendon says emergency medical services personnel work as an extension of the doctors who signed those protocols.

Today, Amarillo Medical Services (AMS) is a healthcare provider working under the banner of American Medical Response (AMR), a nationwide air and ground ambulance network. AMS has 123 full- and part-time employees, which include 70 EMTs and 53 paramedics operating 11 ambulances. Each truck includes a team of one EMT and one paramedic.

According to Hendon, each truck may respond to around a half-dozen emergency calls a day that involve assessment, treatment and transport. Around 80 percent of those calls are not life-threatening but require transportation to a hospital, like when an elderly person falls and fractures a hip. The other 20 percent can be more harrowing. “You’re basically fighting off the Grim Reaper with an IV cath and a laryngoscope [a tool used for tracheal intubation] on the way to the hospital,” he says. “You’re doing the best you can to keep that person alive to get them to a more definitive place of care. You deal with long hours of sheer boredom and then moments of terror, so to speak.”

Those moments of terror require a rare combination of physical strength and agility with mental toughness. “You have to fire on all eight cylinders,” says Hendon. “It takes a strength of mind that not a lot of people have. A lot get into this line of work and will only be here for less than a year. They see a couple of really bad things and walk away.” EMTs and paramedics must show professionalism and compassion, but also have to be able to put some distance between themselves and the trauma they witness. “You have to wrap your mind around the fact that it’s not your job to determine why something happened. You have to separate. You didn’t cause this. You just have to do the best you can in the emergency at that time. It’s a challenge.”

AMS receives around 36,000 service calls a year, which is several thousand more than other cities with a size and population similar to Amarillo’s. Hendon, who entered paramedic school in 2008 after a long career in corrections, attributes this to Amarillo’s unique position in the Panhandle. “I think a lot of it has to do with the merging interstates and the traffic that comes through here,” he says. “We’re centralized as far as our location and we’re a big hub for traffic, like 18-wheelers and trains. We have a lot of people staying in hotels. Other cities don’t have that same congestion.”

Despite the higher number of calls, AMS performs far better than the national average in response times. The nationwide response time is just short of nine minutes. Within the city limits, AMS responders’ current average time is five minutes and 43 seconds – and they are always working to improve. That’s why ambulances are often seen parked in seemingly random places throughout Amarillo. Those locations are strategic, to make sure a truck is never more than five or six minutes away from a potential emergency. “We post our vehicles throughout town to try to reduce response times and get there quicker,” says Hendon.

As medical technology continues to advance, today’s ambulances are able to offer more monitoring capabilities – along with ventilators and IV pumps – than ever before. Along with the vehicles’ evolution, Hendon sees the job itself changing, too. Right now, emergency services acts as a go-between. “You’re either at home and sick or you’re at the hospital getting care,” he says.

He believes EMTs and paramedics may someday do more, like adding preventative care alongside emergency services. He envisions his employees helping homebound patients manage congestive heart failure or severe respiratory problems. The goal would be to keep them from needing an ambulance in the first place. “In the future, I think you’ll see more paramedics doing house calls and more mobile, integrated healthcare – where we’re taking the care to the patient in their residence as opposed to them going to the doctor or the hospital,” Hendon says. “A lot of the elderly population doesn’t have the capability to go out to the doctor on a daily basis. We would be taking that care to them as a direct extension from the physician.”

Whatever changes are in store, Amarillo’s emergency medical personnel will continue offering much more to residents than a glorified, noisy taxi ride to the hospital – and they’ll always be prepared to face any scenario within minutes of getting a call. “It’s about something bigger than yourself,” says Hendon. “Even though [you’re treating] one patient at a time, you’re serving a community.”

Four-Legged Partners

There was a period of time in October when the Amarillo Police Department’s K-9 Unit was down to just a single dog from its usual roster of four. One, Bruno, died during a freak training accident in June. Another had Addison’s Disease and was retired for medical purposes this fall. The third – the oldest dog in the department – died in mid-October due to intestinal complications. “He just got sick and died,” says Cpl. Cody Lavery of the K-9 unit. “He was probably going to retire within the next year.”

The ravaging of the specialized unit was completely unexpected. “I can’t remember it ever happening like that. We would prefer it be staggered out and the dogs retiring because they’re old,” says Lavery. “But things happen.”

By November, however, two new Belgian Malinois police dogs named Bongo and Sunny – along with their APD handlers – had completed their training in Louisiana and been added to the force. This gave the K-9 unit three dual-purpose drug and patrol dogs, alongside Carlo, an explosives-sniffing dog who is a member of the bomb squad. Another Malinois is scheduled to join the force in January. The dogs are used on a regular basis for everything from manhunts to suspected narcotics calls.

Lavery says four dogs are ideal because that makes a member of the K-9 unit available at all hours. Just like their human handlers, dogs perform best when they work a set number of hours each day and get enough rest. “There have been times when we only had two or one [dogs]. The handler gets called out all the time,” Lavery says. That pace is unsustainable for both the handler and the dog, who might be required for multiple drug searches every week.

With a full roster of four, one of these highly trained police dogs is always available to answer the call.

Canine Comfort

One of the newest members of Amarillo’s emergency medical services team isn’t a paramedic or EMT, but an adorable 6-month-old goldendoodle named Saydee. A standard poodle combined with a golden retriever, Saydee is a hypoallergenic fluffball who is on-call for Amarillo Medical Services personnel and currently in training to become a certified therapy dog. Goldendoodles are known for having the personality, temperament and intelligence level that makes them ideal service or therapy dogs.

“She’s here to brighten their day,” says Lauren Christie of Saydee’s burgeoning relationship with paramedics and EMTs. Christie is the AMS administrative supervisor and the caregiver for Saydee, who is in the office Monday to Friday, from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. “If there was something major that went on in the middle of the shift and they felt like they needed to come in and talk about it, then of course Saydee would be here for them.”

Christie got the idea for adding Saydee to the team after seeing comfort dogs used for victims, families and first responders during the Orlando nightclub shooting and Dallas sniper attacks earlier this year. “Our guys and gals see [disturbing] things day in and day out,” she says. Saydee provides an “upbeat, fluffy, sweet” antidote to those stressful situations when they return to the AMS office. While Saydee goes home with Christie on nights and weekends, the dog remains on-call. “If there ever were to be a large situation that involves multiple employees, I would bring her in – even if it was two o’clock in the morning,” she says. When Christie travels for work or is otherwise out of town, a secondary caregiver keeps Saydee and makes sure she stays on her usual routine.

After reaching 12 months of age and passing her certification test, Saydee will begin accompanying AMS staff to health fairs, job fairs, ambulance demonstrations, and other community events. Christie hopes climbing aboard an ambulance to meet Saydee may help children ease the natural fear they often associate with emergency vehicles. “Hopefully Saydee will make it easier for kids to ask questions and get comfortable,” she says. “She looks like a big, old teddy bear.”

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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