Chief Martin McMahon, 94, first-aid pioneer

February 13, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Battalion Chief Martin C. McMahon, who transformed the Baltimore City Fire Department's Ambulance Service and played an important role in the development of mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration and closed-chest massage, died of a heart attack Feb. 5 at a Lewes, Del., nursing home. He was 94.

"He was a pioneer and known nationwide for improving pre-hospital care, bringing first-aid courses to firehouses and was at the very beginning of the Maryland Emergency Medical System," said Division Chief Donald W. Heinbuch.

Chief McMahon was born in Baltimore and raised in Canton. His interest in medicine began in his youth. "My mother was a nurse. After she was married, she used to minister to neighbors, and I used to help her," Chief McMahon told The Sun in a 1957 interview.

After graduation from City College, Chief McMahon served in the merchant marine until joining the Fire Department in 1940.

"Due to his prior merchant marine experience, he was assigned to the fireboat Torrent," said his son and only survivor, Denis G. McMahon, a retired captain in the city Fire Department's communications division who lives in Clarksville, Del.

In 1941, Chief McMahon began serving part time on the ambulances of the old Municipal Ambulance Service that had been established by Mayor Howard W. Jackson in 1927.

He took a first-aid course on his own time and qualified as an instructor. He was able to convince his superiors of the importance of first aid training, which has been compulsory for all firefighters since 1946.

He was presented the Red Cross' Longfellow Award for stanching the flow from an artery of a man felled by a collapsed wall at a fire. In 1955, during the fire at the Tru-Fit Clothing Co. on East Baltimore Street that claimed the lives of six firefighters, he crawled through rubble after the building collapsed to deliver morphine to trapped firefighters.

After he was made captain in 1951, Chief McMahon was able to have the ambulance service placed under jurisdiction of the Fire Department.

"When I took over, we had 10 ambulances. ... The Bureau of Social Services, which was much smaller then, even had control over one ambulance, although the Fire Department paid the salary of the two drivers," Chief McMahon said in an interview with The Sun at the time of his 1975 retirement. "It wasn't an easy thing, but I broke that damn thing up with those old biddies."

It wasn't long before Chief McMahon made sweeping changes in the ambulance service. His mobile hospitals installed in specially equipped trucks with the latest in lifesaving equipment replaced former hearse-like Cadillac ambulances. Medical care was delivered by trained paramedics.

"You can't handle injured people like they're sacks of meal. You've got to know what you're doing," he said in the 1957 interview in The Sun.

His friendship in the 1950s with Dr. Peter Safar, who was chief of the department of anesthesiology at what was then Baltimore City Hospitals, resulted in the development of the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation technique. They also developed a pocket-size S-shaped breathing tube or airway, which was a more effective way of performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

In 1959, he learned about closed-chest massage techniques, now known as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and insisted his crews learn both techniques.

As a result of his work, he became an internationally known expert and was much in demand as a speaker.

The short, husky firefighter was never known for his tact. "He either agreed with you, or if he didn't, he let you know why -- in certain, not infrequently profane terms," said a Sun profile.

"Marty McMahon was in love with medicine and his department. It was a love that was 24 hours a day. We are all indebted for what he accomplished during his lifetime," said James Crockett, president of the city's Board of Fire Commissioners.

At his retirement and in recognition of his achievements, Chief McMahon's badge, No. 37, was retired.

He had been a communicant of Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Highlandtown. He moved to Clarksville from East Baltimore in 2003.

Services are private.

He was predeceased by two wives, Eleanor Devlin McMahon and Elizabeth McMahon.

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