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Paramedic Training for Firefighters Nears OK

Rescue: Supervisors are expected to approve a partnership between the county and private company to help reduce medical response time.


Ventura County firefighters would be trained as paramedics who could provide lifesaving medical treatment to accident victims under a plan expected to be approved today by the Board of Supervisors.

Firefighters are pleased that the plan may finally come to fruition, after years of arguing that the move could cut response times to car accidents and shootings and give victims faster and better care. The plan could also mean more money for firefighters.

"We had been trying to get firefighters trained as paramedics since 1977, but to no avail," said Carroll Hoiness, president of the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Assn. "Earlier, the county did not want firefighters as paramedics. They believed that it would upset the private business sector."

But Fire Chief Bob Roper, who is spearheading the effort, said this plan is a noncompetitive public-private partnership. Under the proposal, the county would enter into a contract with its largest private ambulance company, American Medical Response.

None of the details has been worked out, but Roper said AMR would probably train one firefighter as a paramedic on each of the county's 33 engine companies.

However, Brian Ranger, AMR's operations manager, said the plan would most likely entail having county fire officials hire firefighters already trained as paramedics.

"It's all purely conceptual at this point," Ranger said. "We just need approval from supervisors to begin the discussion."

The ambulance company began favoring the firefighter/paramedic concept after state legislators recently reduced the medical response time requirement from 10 minutes to 8 minutes, 30 seconds.

Beginning in early summer, ambulances in Ventura County must arrive at a scene within 8 1/2 minutes in 90% of their calls. Failure to meet this requirement could result in fines.

Ranger said his company is open to the idea, providing the county is not trying to run the firm out of business.

"As long as the chief is not proposing the threat of taking over our business," Ranger said. "We would fight tooth and nail against that."

Under Roper's plan, if a county firetruck arrived at an emergency scene before an ambulance, the response time clock would stop ticking, and the firefighter/paramedic would begin treating the patient.

Once the AMR paramedics arrived, they would take over treatment and transport the patient to a hospital, Roper said.

Although private ambulance companies have in the past bristled at the suggestion that they could not meet the 10-minute response time, they now are realizing they may need help, Roper said.

"The question is whether they want to hire more staff to meet the new requirement or strike a deal with county fire," Roper said.

Most of the county's roughly 400 firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians who can provide basic life support, such as supplying oxygen or applying semiautomatic cardiac defibrillators to heart-failure victims.

As paramedics, firefighters would be allowed to dispense medication and perform more advanced lifesaving techniques.

"What's important is that the public will get a higher level medical response," Roper said, "and it won't cost taxpayers an extra dime."

Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes rural areas such as the Santa Clara Valley, strongly supports the plan. She hoped her colleagues would also authorize Roper to begin contract negotiations with AMR.

"It will only enhance the service, especially in rural areas," Long said. "If we can get to [victims] sooner, that's our goal."

If the plan is approved in concept, a formal contract would return to the supervisors for final approval within the next few months.

Approval today would also open contract negotiations with the firefighters' union, Hoiness said. The deal would most likely also entail bonuses or pay raises for firefighters trained as paramedics.

"We're absolutely in favor of it," Hoiness added. "We're here to serve the people. And this would give us a shot in the arm. Our No. 1 priority is to save lives."

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