Portal Rescue


In The Beginning – 1981

The beginnings of emergency medical service in the area were actually in Rodeo. In the fall of 1980 the residents of Rodeo NM, and Portal and Paradise in Arizona, largely at the instigation of Mr. Joe Schatz, felt they needed some emergency medical capabilities in the area. An EMT training class was organized, given by Cochise College and underwritten by Arizona, with 12 students from each state.

The list of charter EMTs from Arizona included such names as Chew, Blondeau, Whetten, Byrne, Norris, Caron, Schaughency, Kimball, Anderson and Tapp. New Mexico accepted Arizona certification for its residents and Hidalgo County then placed an ambulance in Rodeo and supplied EMTs in both states with First-Responder kits, supplies and on-going training. The goal then was simply to be able to stabilize a patient, using the first responder kits, until the their ambulance could arrive and transport.

The relationship continued for more than four years, after which, for legal reasons, the Rodeo ambulance was no longer allowed to pick up Arizona patients for transport within Arizona.

Interest in the program gradually waned and by 1985 there were only 3 or 4 EMTs in Portal and many of the Rodeo people did not re-certify (required bi-annually). It was clear by then that if we wanted to continue to properly serve the community we needed not only more staff but our own equipment, and the community responded to our appeal for help. Another EMT class was begun in 1985 and several new EMTs certified and joined us. After another class in 1987, our roster grew to 13. The Sew What club gave us $1,025 to purchase some much-needed equipment. Bob Chew made several spineboards and splints, and we gladly accepted used equipment and supplies from other organizations.


With new EMTs breathing new life into the organization ( the 1987 class brought our roster to 13 EMTs) it became apparent that big changes were required if we were to significantly improve emergency medical service in our area. We quickly realized that we needed to become an “entity” and that incorporation as a “non-profit” corporation was necessary if we were to be able to qualify for state aid grants and obtain necessary insurance protection for our members. PORTAL RESCUE INC. was incorporated in January 1988 and we applied for grant money to cover insurance, a response vehicle and radio and medical equipment.

The By-Laws adopted at the time of incorporation provided for an annual public meeting at which time a 9 member Board of Directors is elected. The Board is vested with policy making and budgetary authority for the corporation. The Board is made up of 6 members of Portal Rescue and 3 members from the community at large not otherwise associated with Portal Rescue. The Board selects the officers of the corporation from within its members. From the beginning Portal Rescue operated with a policy of “no-charge” service to residents of the community. The community was defined as the area from north of Whitetail Canyon on the north to Rucker Canyon Road on the south, west to the crest of the Chiricahuas and east to include the immediate Rodeo area. This was a service area of a little over 400 square miles.

Another early realization was the need for a vehicle to enable us to respond to emergencies with our growing amount of supplies and equipment. Since none of us had uncles who were in the auto business we resorted to our usual tactics; we went begging. We learned of the existence of a vehicle, a 1978 Blazer retired from Sheriff Department duties and sitting in a storage yard but titled to the State. We started negotiations and paperwork in April 1988 and after much bureaucratic wrangling and delay (and some political arm-twisting) and a large phone bill, we finally received the vehicle one year later in April 1989. We finally had wheels but came to find out that we didn’t have tires: someone had “requisitioned” the good tires that were on the vehicle when we first saw it and we were faced with a major expenditure for 4 new tires. Our initial grant money was also frustratingly slow in arriving. But progress was made in other areas.

With the additional equipment and supplies we outgrew Blondeau’s pump house as a base of operations and obtained a small metal building from the Forest Service (we were getting pretty good at begging by this time) which we placed at the Portal Store and extensively modified to store supplies. We made modest additions to our basic equipment and supplies and started a communication system with donated equipment from the Forest Service. This served for a time but the limitations of using Forest Service frequencies quickly became apparent. In early ‘89 we took giant steps: acquired from the FCC our own frequency (WNQA830), obtained a base station radio and a radio in the Blazer which went into operation in the early summer of ‘89. These radios were programmed with the frequencies of surrounding emergency agencies as well as our own. Many of the EMTs carried a cigarette package size pager which was activated by an alert tone from the base station radio. We now were able to alert many EMTs at once to a call and communicate with other agencies.

Our ‘89 request to Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) for funds resulted in approval of $2220 for insurance (then and now a major expense item), $719 for medical equipment, $500 for vehicle operation and $1344 for the paging system mentioned above. Another source of revenue in this period was the use of the Blazer on standby emergency medical service for major Forest Service fires. This paid Portal Rescue $250 per day for the vehicle and was the major source of funds for the radio system mentioned above.

Another problem that required urgent attention was the difficulty of quickly and accurately locating anyone calling for our services anywhere in our 400 square mile service area. We tackled this with what we called our “Locator Project”. Seven ladies of the community, spearheaded by Kay Muma and Penny Johnston and including Katie Scholes, Marge Fagan, Karen Hayes and Rosie Turner, canvassed the entire area and obtained data on family name, phone, number and ages of children and road directions to the house. These data were then entered into a database which enabled us to quickly know how to get to any resident calling. Actually these ladies were a unit called Portal Rescue Auxiliary which started operating in the spring of ‘89 and served the dual purpose of getting the data mentioned above from every family but also explaining the story of Portal Rescue and soliciting funds. Their efforts brought in over $2,000 to the treasury.

In December ‘89 we lost a good friend and neighbor with the death of Martin Muma. The family thoughtfully requested that memorials to Martin be made to Portal Rescue. Due to his wide circle of friends in the business and scientific communities this resulted in income of over $2,600. It also set a precedent (naming Portal Rescue as a recipient of memorial funds) which became a continuing source of funds over the years. The Muma funds were a major factor (along with Department of Health Services grants and other donations from individuals) in making 1989 the year in which Portal Rescue turned the corner toward solvency. For the first time we ended the year with a comfortable bank balance.

The program at the Sew What Club 1989 Thanksgiving meeting was on fire safety and was given by representatives of the Douglas and Elfrida Fire Departments and the State Land Department who spoke on the need for and the possibility of obtaining some form of fire protection in the Portal area. We learned that there were state and federal funds available to communities such as ours for this purpose. We hurriedly put together a grant request before the 10 day deadline and by June 1990 found ourselves in the fire business with a (much) used fire truck on loan from the state and a $1,500 grant from the state . A February public meeting showed strong support for the idea of a fire function and a fund drive netted $3,400. With this start and many donations of equipment, tools, hose etc. from the State, the Forest Service and many of Barney Tomberlin’s old friends in the fire service we were in business and responded to eight fires in 1990 including 2 in “downtown” Portal.

From the beginning, the fire service has not only provided protection to the community but also has been a prime source of funding to subsidize the emergency medical operations and all expenses of Portal Rescue. Through a contract with the Arizona State Land Department, which has responsibility for fire protection on all State and private land outside of incorporated areas, we are paid an hourly rate for vehicle and personnel to respond to wildland fires in much of northeastern Cochise County. Over the years this income has varied from 0 to $40,000 annually.

Our contract with the State called for shelter from the elements for the fire truck and an investigation on how to do this kept us busy through the summer of ‘90. An interim solution was the use of Ted Troller’s barn but slowly a consensus evolved that a Portal Rescue building was necessary and feasible. The gift of a building site from Bill and Mary Wily really started the ball rolling. Community response to a building fund drive was tremendous; raising over $21,000 in a short time. The concrete slab was poured in July, the building arrived in August, was substantially erected by October and was dedicated at an “overflow crowd” open house in November. So, we finally had a “home” for our vehicles and equipment.

At about the same time we received from ADHS a 1983 Chevrolet van which had been used by another agency. It had been much used and much abused but with many hours of work by Dennis McAvoy and Russ Griffiths and volunteers from the community including Boots Deiss, Bob Fagan and Dan Reese we mechanically repaired the vehicle, rebuilt the interior and repainted it in and out and put it into service in January 1992. This became our primary response vehicle and it gave us the ability to transport a patient to meet an ambulance on the road in a potentially life threatening situation. This vehicle was not, and could not be, certified as an ambulance by Arizona Department of Health Services, who controlled such things. The subject of patient transport in a vehicle not certified as an ambulance became an issue with ADHS several times in subsequent years when bureaucrats who did not appreciate our distance from a hospital tried to stop this practice. We were always able to show that we did this only in a medical emergency and that our actions were always in the best interest of the patient.

Another project keeping us busy in 1991 was the purchase of a 1974 Ford F350 brush/rescue truck from Sierra Vista Fire District for $3,000 (our first vehicle purchase). This turned out to be a good investment since we sold it 10 years later for $3,500. This decision was made because the state truck that we operated was on the way to bankrupting us because of maintenance costs. With our own truck we received much better payments from State Land for fires and were able to turn the fire operation into a source of funds which subsidized the medical operation.


In 1991 another class of EMTs graduated and certified , bringing our roster to 17 EMTs but an even more significant event was the certification of Russ Griffith, and later Debby Rothpletz, as Intermediate EMTs thus bringing advanced life support capability to the community. Their new certification meant that they were able to administer IVs and certain drugs under the direct supervision of emergency room physicians at Tucson Medical Center. Medical assistance, available through radio or phone, was also available to all EMTs thus giving us a direct link to a major hospital emergency room physician on any call.

One of the first requirements of fire fighting is a water supply and we were severely limited in that category until we acquired a used 5,000 gallon former buried gasoline tank which we cleaned, painted and set in place behind the station and above a hydrant next to the pavement below thus creating a gravity fed high capacity water supply. Initially this was filled by pumping from Cave Creek. At about the same time we substantially improved our water carrying capacity (to the fire) by building a 400 gallon tank trailer outfitted with pump, hose reel and foam system. Both of these projects came about largely due to the dedication and long hours of work on the part of Dennis McAvoy. Other major contributors were Devaun Richins, Pete Rawdon and the surplus department of Phelps Dodge. This trailer was pulled by our Blazer (our original EMS response vehicle)

In the summer of 1993 we were able to drill a well and complete our water infrastructure. The $5,000 cost of this addition was funded by donations from a few supporters and a significant discount by Elbrock Water Systems. It did not utilize any General Fund monies.

Also in 1993 we replaced our EMS response van with a “full fledged” ambulance given to us by the Douglas Fire Department. We were not certified to operate it as an ambulance but it did increase our EMS capabilities and allowed us to be able to transport a patient to meet with an ambulance and thus reduce the critical “Golden Hour” to get a patient to the hospital.

From the beginning we found it advisable to use helicopter transport to a trauma center (Tucson Medical Center) for trauma from severe vehicle accidents and for heart attack patients. As this means became more common with the availability of nearby commercial helicopter service we found it advisable to upgrade our facilities. In 1993 we built the present heliport next to the station with a grass surface to reduce dust and lights for nigh-time operation. The use of helicopter transport has become more and more frequent and over the years has been credited with more than a couple of “life saves”. We haven’t reached the “Golden Hour” ideal for Trauma Center hospitalization but we now can come pretty close.

Howard Topoff 2011