The Perspective

Public Health Flashback: Ellen Spears

Ellen Spears has a stack of old health district employee identification cards that date back to 1982. The cards look like the old Nevada driver’s licenses or UNLV student ID cards. Her last name was Mason then, her hair was long and her position was listed as ‘sanitarian aide’ on the first cards. In the ensuing years, her hair changed length and her job titles changed to include sanitarian I, sanitarian II, field investigator II, environmental health specialist II and training officer, which is the position she holds today.

Ellen joined the Clark County Health District as a ‘pool kid.’ Yes, that is correct . . . a pool kid. “It was very different in the 1970s and 1980s,” she said. The pool kids were part-timers in the pool inspection program. It was an internship-type program under the directorship of Doug Bruchard where college students learned the ins and outs of the pool inspection program as they worked as lifeguards and pool attendants. When the summer ended and the pools closed for the season, many of the pool kids were hired by the health district for the pool program. “He (Bruchard) trained us at his own pool at his house, we thought it was great,” she said. “As part of the program, we worked at the Tropicana, the Sahara and the Las Vegas Hilton.” Several pool kids are still on staff while many others are scattered in professional positions around town.

Today, the pool inspection program is a year-round project and its team includes full time staff members.

“It was a different time” she said. Born and raised in Las Vegas, she earned a degree in health education with a minor in microbiology. Her mother taught at UNLV before it actually was called UNLV and her father was a teacher at her alma mater, Valley High School.

She has worked under the direction of three environmental health directors . . . V.H. Ueckert (whose title was actually deputy health officer for environmental health), Clare Schmutz and Glenn Savage. “Las Vegas was very different then, and so was the health district,” she said. “The community was much smaller and more like a family.” She does remember that several environmental health supervisors were cowboys and not in that “doing-things-their-own-way” manner. . . they were the real deal . . .hats, boots and bolo ties. “Like Helldorado Days,” she added.

Sanitarians, now known as environmental health specialists, inspected everything. “We did it all . . . hanta virus, plague, septic systems, safe drinking water, child care centers, food inspections as well as some epidemiological stuff. There was no Office of Epidemiology,” she said.

The approach to environmental health was different because sanitarians/environmental health specialists did many different things and were cross-trained in the days when there was less specialization. “You had a territory, and you did everything,” she added. Environmental health has a wider scope these days and the community is much bigger.

“Today, here as well as nationally, environmental health is much more compartmentalized and specialized.” Science has helped that evolution. New areas of study have emerged, more chemicals have been identified in water systems, and superfund cleanups are now recognized.

More science-based knowledge has changed some of the health district’s role in keeping Southern Nevada healthy. “We have more awareness of issues so we have developed regulations to keep pace, like the tattoo and permanent makeup program and public accommodations to combat bed bugs, for example.”

The health district has adapted to changes in the role of public health and the growth of the Las Vegas Valley since the 1960s. “We emulate the community,” she said. “We didn’t have bed bugs, rats or Africanized bees. Now we do. Our physical environment has changed and we had to change too.”

As the Environmental Health (EH) Division has evolved with the community, it has developed into a recognized industry leader. In 1998, EH received the Samuel J. Crumbine award for its food service program. The Crumbine is a national award that recognizes outstanding achievements in environmental health. “We were leaders in food inspection programs and our health card program. We set standards in how we inspect and regulate. We are still leaders nationwide and we continue to receive phone calls and questions about our program from other jurisdictions.” In the 1960s, there were 800 permitted food establishments and in the 2010s, there are more than 17,000 permits.

Ellen remembers the days of handwritten inspection reports, manual input, no desk computers and then the switch to a more computerized system. “I remember the clerical staff complaining about the computers. Now, the inspectors are working with portable devices.” And, environmental health forms, complaints, regulations, and even restaurant inspections are all available online.

Today, as an environmental health training officer, Ellen is able to call upon her ‘sanitarian’ days as she can share a broad base of experience. She remembers a solid waste situation in the desert where she came upon an open well. Her experience allowed her to quickly identify what it was and what to do about it. “Things are not always what they appear to be,” she said. “I get to teach staff members to ask the right questions . . . every situation has a past, present and future.”

“The typical day is the same as always, but every day is different. You don’t know what to expect so you expect the unexpected,” she said.

The Perspective Footer