City, college work to fill need for paramedics

Great Falls Fire Rescue has been impacted by the national paramedic shortage and has been developing local solutions to grow their own.

The department is working with Great Falls College MSU to develop a condensed version of the paramedic program with plans to pilot the course with eight current GFFR firefighters.

The details are still being worked out and GFFR is working within its budget to fund the estimated $80,000 to train those firefighters as paramedics.

So far, it doesn’t appear that the training will require City Commission approval, according to several city officials.

Earlier this year, The Electric reported on two GFFR firefighters who were pursuing paramedic certifications through the National Medical Education and Training Center, based in Boston.

The commission included some tuition assistance for those firefighters in this year’s budget.
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Susan Wolff, chief executive officer and dean at Great Falls College MSU, read that and contacted the city right away. GFFR Chief Steve Hester called her back and they began discussion on whether the college could provide the needed training, Wolff said.

Soon, the college’s director of the Lifelong Learning Center, Heather Palermo was looped in.

She went to Joel Henderson, the paramedic program director, and asked if it would be possible.
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“They sat down and said, “We can make this work,'” Palermo said.

The first step was getting approval from their national accreditation body, which they did.

The program is condensed from two years to about seven months since the pilot for GFFR firefighters is a certificate versus an associate’s degree that includes prerequisites like writing.
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“This is an experienced group of firefighters and EMTs who have been working on the street,” Henderson said. “This is a specific cohort of experienced EMTs working on an ALS service.”

The condensed version still includes classes like medical terminology and anatomy, among others. Participants will be able to do their clinicals in local hospitals and some of their field work on GFFR engines. They’ll have longer and more intense days during the week, Palermo said.
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For some of the program, the firefighters will have to be full-time students so GFFR is still working out how to cover shifts and overtime.

At the end of the course, all participants must pass the national registry test to get state paramedic licensure, Henderson said.

If all eight become paramedics, GFFR will have met its strategic goal of having 24 paramedics. That will allow them to have one per shift per station and some left over to cover vacations, sick days, injuries and any other issues.

GFFR currently have 16 and recently amended their labor contract so battalion chiefs can also serve as paramedics when necessary.

This particular version of the course is tailored to the GFFR firefighters, Palermo said, and it’s the kind of customized training her department has been offering to individual companies, industries and municipalities.
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GFFR had begun advanced life support service in 2000 when it had five paramedics and through the Carrico ALS Trust, the department sent eight firefighters to complete the college’s paramedic program, making it the first in the state to do so, according to the department history sheet.
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Lew Card, executive director of development, communications and marketing, said anyone else looking to fill training needs can call the college to see if they can develop their own training program.

“It’s a great example of thinking outside the box and meeting the needs of the community,” Card said.

Many of the college’s paramedic instructors are themselves working paramedics with GFFR or Great Falls Emergency Services, or previously worked in that capacity. One instructor is a Mercy Flight paramedic.