GFFR nearing paramedic staffing goal, eight firefighters almost finished with GFCMSU training

Great Falls Fire Rescue is nearing its goal for paramedic staffing.

Last year, the department had 16 paramedics, allowing for one paramedic per shift per station, but only when no one is on vacation, sick or injured.

“That’s critical mass for us,” Jeremy Jones told The Electric on his first official day as assistant chief for operations at GFFR in February 2018.

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The department was feeling the nationwide pinch of the paramedic shortage, but since then, two firefighters sought out and completed a paramedic certification through the National Medical Education and Training Center, based in Boston.

Nolan Taylor and Joe Tinsley are now full paramedics, bringing the department total to 18. The city approved some tuition assistance for firefighters in that program.

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After The Electric reported on the paramedic shortage in 2018, officials at Great Falls College-MSU reached out to GFFR to develop a local program to meet the training need.

In January, eight firefighters started an accelerated paramedic training course at the college and are nearing completion of the program.

GFFR started running advanced life support out of Station 2 in 2000 and at the time had five paramedics.

For several years, the Carrico Foundation funded paramedic training for GFFR and at the time, the number of paramedics was capped at 20. That was stable for awhile, but the funding ran out and the department has been losing paramedics through retirements, promotions and relocations.

Having paramedics allows the department to respond to advanced life support calls and with stations positioned around the city, are often able to arrive on scene quickest.

“It allows a more immediate intervention when someone is facing a life threatening emergency,” Jones said. “The intervention provided by GFFR paramedics can mean the difference between life and death.”

The city funded the paramedic training for the eight firefighters and in September, the City Commission approved an employment agreement that requires those firefighters to stay with GFFR for at least 60 months after completing the program, or reimburse the city for a portion of the cost.

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The cohort of eight has been in the classroom for months and recently went back on shift for the internship phase of the program.

Those eight firefighters are: Troy Weir, Chris Newman, Adam Jordan, Carter Marsh, Tyler Osweiler, JD Kulbeck, Jason Furr and Ryan Olson.

Another firefighter, Sterling Veltkamp, has enrolled in the NMETC program in Boston and another might be starting paramedic training in the fall, Jones said.

Adam Jordan joined GFFR in 2016 and had enrolled in a paramedic program in the Flathead area, but hadn’t started yet when we was hired at GFFR.

“I thought it was something I’d never be able to do,” he said, “so when the opportunity came up, I jumped on it. The department had a need, part of my decision to become a paramedic was to help fill that need.”

Jordan said it’s an opportunity to continue learning and serve the community, plus there’s job satisfaction in growing on the job and using those skills.

While the eight firefighters are in the internship phase, they’re running calls under the supervision of 10 GFFR paramedics who went through a selection process.

They’ll have to take the lead on 30 advanced life support calls and 20 basic life support calls, Jones said.

Carter Marsh is training under Jay Jarrett, who was his captain for a year on shift. That familiarity “makes it a lot more comfortable. We have high trust with people we know,” he said.

The first portion of the program in the classroom was a “brutal pace” but past experience as a firefighter and EMT as helpful, he said. He’d worked at Missoula Rural for five years as a volunteer before coming to GFFR.

“It’s super important for paramedics to have that street experience, it helps know how we operate and how the other agencies we work with operate,” Marsh said.

The experience on calls over the years watching other paramedics operate also helped.

“They really set the expectation,” Marsh said.

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The eight firefighters in the GFCMSU program will take the national test around August, Jones said, and their results are sent to the state for licensing. He said it’s a formality, but a slow turn around time at the state.

Once the eight finish the program through GFCMSU, they’ll still be in training within GFFR and be evaluated on an additional 25 ALS leads before being turned out as stand alone paramedics, Jones said.

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“We want a wide variety of calls, which takes time,” Jones said, ” so they’re exposed to a vast array of emergencies and be evaluated on them.”

Several years ago, GFFR set a strategic goal of having 24 paramedics to allow the department to staff one per shift per station and have some left over to cover vacations, sick days, injuries and other issues.

Last fall, the city amended their labor contract with the firefighting union so battalion chiefs can also serve as paramedics when necessary.

When the eight complete their training, the department will be over its goal and would be able to staff a fifth engine or a squad out of Station 1, if and when the city budget allows for that staffing level.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve,” Jones said.

Jordan said the first portion of classwork was tough since he hadn’t been in school for 15 years. It was a lot of early mornings, late nights and weekends studying.

When he started the paramedic program, his kids were four months and three years old, he said his wife picked up more parenting duties so he could study.

Now that he’s back on shift, he said it takes a bit to adjust back to the idiosyncrasies and incorporate what they’ve learned. The accelerated program works for those with experience since they already know the lingo and know what things look like in the real world, he said.

He’s precepting under Brandon Jaraczeski, who has been his captain for years.

That adds a comfort level since they already know how they work together as a crew, he said, but there are new challenges since he’s now functioning as a paramedic and also a driver, which comes with added responsibilities.

Knowing their roles is an important part of ensuring a fast and efficient response, as well as prioritizing on each scene.