City about to reach goal of 24 paramedics on staff at GFFR
Eight firefighters are wrapping up training to become paramedics, getting Great Falls Fire Rescue to its strategic goal of having 24 paramedics on staff.
That allows GFFR to have one paramedic per shift per station and some left over to cover vacations, sick days, injuries and other issues.
GFFR has been discussing the goal of 24 paramedics for several years and when officials at Great Falls College MSU read a story in The Electric about the need for paramedics, they reached out to GFFR to create a condensed accredited program that will prepared students for the exam from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians.
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In January 2019, eight city firefighters started the program and now, those newly minted paramedics are nearing completion of the program so they operate on the streets as standalone paramedics.
The training program included classroom time, then clinicals in local hospitals and field work on GFFR engines.
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Troy Weir is one of those firefighters. He’s been with GFFR for about 14 years and said becoming a paramedic was always a goal of his and the opportunity came up.
“I’ve seen first hand what it can do for the community and wanted to be a part of that,” Weir said.
All city firefighters are EMTs but not all are firefighters are paramedics and in recent years, the department has lost firefighters to retirement, promotions and departures.
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Weir said the biggest advantage he had going into the paramedic program was his experience on the street and working in the city’s emergency response system.
“You see a lot of what needs to happen,” he said. “Having early access to advanced life support care potentially makes a life or death difference. To be able to start that ALS care when it’s needed is huge.”
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EMTS can offer basic life support, or BLS, care, but paramedics offer advanced life support care before or during transport to the hospital and can also administer more drugs or certain tasks.
The city opted to pay the $10,000 per student for the paramedic training program, but asked participants to sign a commitment letter 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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Chris Newman also completing the paramedic training. He started paramedic training before joining GFFR, but wasn’t able to complete the program.
“It was something I always wanted to finish, so 12 years later I got the change and jumped on it,” Newman said.
Despite the prior experience, there’s a lot to relearn and a lot has changed.
Newman said the time commitment alone for the training would have been prevented him from completing the program without city support.
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Weir said that for the duration of the program, their job was to go to school, “that was a huge opportunity.”
Colton Walter, is a paramedic and supervised trainees on calls, and said that the addition of paramedics is “significant. The impact to the citizens is significant. They get better care and faster care so it’s better for the department and citizens in the community.”
It’s also a major commitment for the city to pay for it and commit to sending the firefighters to class and backfilling engines.
“So it shows that it’s important,” Walter said.
It’s a cost, he said, “but there’s a tangible benefit.”
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Even as paramedics, they’re firefighters first and have other jobs such as driving fire engines and supervising platoons on scenes.
Walter said the response is fluid depending on the type of call and being a paramedic is an additional duty along with hazardous materials response, technical rescues and more.
When the city first began advanced life support service in 2000, 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. At the time, the city offered three separate condensed courses, according to GFFR Chief Steve Hester’s staff report for a 2019 City Commission meeting.