On-street work prepped Hooley for top EMS post

Jim Hooley: Loves job, misses street calls.Jim Hooley: Loves job, misses street calls.

Chief Jim Hooley, the man who runs the city’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) department, stumbled into his profession. Literally.

Hooley, an Uphams Corner native, was a UMass Boston senior in the spring of 1976 when he shattered his leg trying to run down a foul ball at Walsh Park in Lower Mills. Suddenly sidelined from his part-time construction job, Hooley noticed an ad in the student newspaper about an upcoming summer class to train new EMTs.

These days, Chief Hooley is at the helm of the 358-person city department that he joined when it was known as the Health and Hospitals division in June 1978.

The 58-year-old father of three has learned to love the administrative work, even though he often misses the drumbeat of response calls out on the streets of Boston.

“I never saw myself in this role when I got started,” said Hooley, who typically is based at the EMS headquarters on Albany Street. “I was just interested in improving emergency services in general and took those opportunities to move up.”

The oldest of six Hooley kids raised in and around Uphams Corner, the chief calls West Roxbury home these days. But his office walls carry the trademark signs of a Dot kid made good, including a custom, framed map of the neighborhood with historic markers, a Father’s Day gift, he explains.

Chief Hooley succeeded longtime chief Richard Serino in Jan. 2010 when Serino— also a Dorchester native– was appointed Deputy Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Hooley had previously served as a shift commander, superintendent of field operations and second in command to Serino as Superintendent in Chief.

But it was his 15 years as a paramedic working the highways and sidestreets of his hometown that truly prepared Hooley for the leadership role he holds today.

“You don’t forget it. It helps you understand that this is a profession in which sometimes people do make mistakes. And it’s not that we excuse that, but it helps you to be more forgiving. I haven’t forgotten the stress that an individual crew can come under,” he said.

Hooley entered the city EMT ranks at an opportune time in the late 1970s, as the now-defunct Health and Hospitals department was adding more trucks and paramedics. The expansion also meant that he was thrown directly into action with just a few weeks of training as the third wheel in a typically two-man crew.

“After the bosses went home at 5 o’clock, you’d get tossed the keys and you were now responsible for the 9-1-1 calls. I came to like it very much, but as a 20-something you realized quickly just how much responsibility is now yours. You’re expected to walk into this thing and bring a sense of calm,” Hooley said.

These days, new EMTs spend a minimum of six months in training, including three months shadowing crews out on the street. But the dynamic of encountering your first trauma victim— which accounts for about 1 percent of the city’s response calls— is still a defining moment.

“You’ll find out early on if you’re cut out for the sights, the sounds, the smells. If you come through the first couple of times and you feel like you are making these families feel better about what they just went through. You can say I survived it and actually made a difference.

“And you learn on every call. In this job, you have to be a lifelong learner. Things are still evolving and make some of what used to be done look almost barbaric. There’s medicines we can give now that we didn’t have. But the common sense stuff doesn’t change.”

The demand to join the ranks of the EMT department has grown in recent years, Hooley said, in part because of a tough job market, but also because it’s become a more attractive profession for someone starting a career in health care. Last week, the department added 23 new EMTs to its ranks following a rigorous six-month training program. All of the new recruits were already trained as state certified EMTs and many, like Hooley, worked for private ambulance companies before joining the city department.

The reinforcements are in constant demand. Last year, city EMTs and paramedics were called to 108,000 incidents and transported over 78,000 patients to area hospitals. A full 25 percent of those calls were made from Dorchester and Mattapan, according to the department’s statistics for 2011. Unlike many other municipalities and suburban communities in Massachusetts, Boston maintains its own fleet of trained personnel and only relies on private companies— such as Eascare or Fallon— for about 1 percent of transports, mostly for patient trips out of the city. With a weekday population estimated at 900,000 people— inclusive of commuters who work in town— the demands on the Boston EMS can be daunting. Yet, they consistently meet or exceed targeted response times for urgent or life threatening incidents—termed as priority one calls.

“The people of Boston can be proud that one of their own has made a career out of serving them, not only in emergencies, but as a constant advocate for their health and safety,” Mayor Menino said of Hooley in a statement issued to the Reporter this week. “EMS is much more than just 911 calls, they are coordinating services for those with diabetes and asthma, collaborating with hospitals and planning for natural disasters, and they do a great job.”

In addition to Jim, the Hooley family has displayed a remarkable aptitude for public service at high levels. His brother Captain Kevin Hooley just retired from a 40 year-career in the US Navy, which began with a ten year-stint as an enlisted man. Among Capt. Hooley’s late-career assignments were commands of the US Fifth Fleet and the Navy’s Cyber Forces based in Virginia. Of Jim’s other siblings, one works as an executive for Shaw’s Supermarkets, two sisters are nurses and another is a pharmacist.

Jim Hooley’s own two sons have each chosen public safety careers here in Boston. Daniel Hooley is a Boston Police patrolman in Mattapan. His other son, Thomas Hooley, followed his father’s footsteps into the Boston EMS last year.

Chief Hooley says he’s focused on watching for new ways to better train and further improve response times. The key to progress, Hooley says, is to groom talented young leaders from the earliest possible moment.

“I told the class that we brought on last week: You’ve got as much at stake in the present and future of the organization as anyone else here.”