For years he has been the ‘face’ of Escalon Community Ambulance.
Not to mention its heart.
ECA Chief Mike Pitassi has now stepped out of that role, officially retiring on Friday, Dec. 1, leaving behind a legacy of service and commitment at the local ambulance service.
When he retired at 5 p.m. on Dec. 1, it marked 30 years exactly that Pitassi had served as leader of Escalon Community Ambulance.
“When I applied, I was coming from another position, as Director of Operations at Westside Community Ambulance,” he explained. “I was there four years; I started here when I was 30.”
Leading the ambulance crew was a lot different 30 years ago, when crew members were called on the telephone to respond to a call and there wasn’t a dedicated ambulance station in town. Instead, there was an ambulance ‘shed’ where the rig was stored.
“The ambulance shed was behind Dr. Haskin’s office,” Pitassi said. “There were lights, no water, just a couple of ambulances there.”
Pitassi said a special board meeting of the ambulance board was called after he had interviewed for the position and the half dozen or so ambulance volunteers were also in attendance when then-City Manager Jack Storne introduced him as the new ambulance manager.
“He told them I would be doing ‘whatever an ambulance manager does’,” Pitassi remembered with a laugh regarding Storne’s assessment. “I was at that time the only paid staff member.”
Budgets were on paper spread sheets, not on computers, and Pitassi found himself constantly on the go, driving often from his home in Oakdale to Escalon to handle calls.
After a short time, he knew he would have to make the move to Escalon to be closer to the job and not cut in to family time, with wife Karen and two young sons, Ben and Andrew, at home. A third son, Lucas, was later born as well.
Pitassi said it was clear he couldn’t do the job justice living even just a few miles away, so within two weeks of accepting the ECA job, he and his family moved in to a 900 square-foot house on Yosemite Avenue.
The first years saw additional training for some volunteers, including Tina Van Houten and Lambert Veldstra being sponsored to attend paramedic school. Slowly, the ambulance service grew, adding more volunteers, increasing their training and about 10 years after Pitassi arrived, Van Houten was hired by the board as a second paid staff member.
“We used to split the week, she’d work 84 hours, I’d work 84,” said Pitassi.
Realizing the need for a dedicated volunteer crew as the community grew and calls increased, an EMT course was put on locally, the new trainees joining the ranks.
“We agreed on the number of hours that would be reasonable, they were required to work at least one 12-hour shift per week,” Pitassi said of the recruits.
As the service grew, so too did the need for a dedicated building.
“We put an article in The Times,” Pitassi said of getting word out that they were looking for a suitable location for an ambulance station.
Shortly after that, land was donated by Clark Swanson for the station in 1991 and the existing station was built on Ullrey Avenue.
Pitassi also pointed to the generous donations provided by Mark Hogan in getting the new station built.
“He has been an amazing guy to ECA,” Pitassi noted, “a huge benefactor, plus the rest of the community supports us so well, all kinds of folks.”
The ambulance station was renamed the Pitassi-Van Houten Station a couple of years ago in honor of Mike Pitassi and Tina Van Houten and Pitassi said the word ‘Community’ continues to stand out for him in the Escalon Community Ambulance name, since it is a community supported service.
“The board, their sole purpose was to see that we had a good ambulance and EMS service here,” he added. “We didn’t want to be average; we wanted a good, solid, dependable system.”
Personnel has come and gone, new equipment has arrived and been put in service, the board and community have continued to support the service … and through it all, Pitassi said he has been both buoyed and humbled by the trust that the board has shown in him.
“We have come a long way, a lot of changes,” he said.
Retirement will be a change for Pitassi as well, and though he wants to direct his attention to fundraising for the ambulance service through an ECA Foundation, he also is looking forward to more time with family.
Sons Ben and Andrew both went into the field, Ben is a Navy Seal corpsman and Andrew is a paramedic with San Joaquin County. Youngest son Lucas went to college in Los Angeles and is currently working in the film business. Wife Karen works for Oak Valley Hospital on the ambulance and will scale back to part-time soon.
Pitassi said ECA is family-oriented and he was blessed to have “never missed a ball game, a wrestling match or a Christmas show” while his kids were active in Escalon schools.
“I want to be active in advocating on behalf of our paramedics and EMTs,” he added. “In general, they’re underappreciated for what they do every day.”
From his very first patient in 1975 when he broke into the business to calls he handled recently, Pitassi said “my carousel is full” of memories.
“The majority of things I’ve seen, honestly, I would like to forget them,” he admitted. “I drive by homes, intersections, telephone poles … I go right back to that moment (of a call); you don’t realize the impact it will leave on you.”
Escalon Community Ambulance now has four full-time paramedics, six regular part-time paramedics, nine regular EMTs and two reserve EMTs.
Pitassi said he knows the service will be in good hands – longtime paramedic Vanessa Herrero taking the reins of the day-to-day operations – and he has every confidence in the ambulance service as it moves forward.
“I love being part of this organization,” Pitassi said. “I’m very blessed.”