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Firefighters to Provide Advanced Care at Scene

Safety: New county program allows trained workers to treat accident victims, who are often in difficult-to-reach places, until ambulance arrives.


Saying it will cut response times, save lives and reduce costs, Ventura County rolled out its latest addition to public safety Monday--the firefighter-paramedic.

The 15 dually trained professionals will operate out of fire stations in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks and will offer immediate, lifesaving medical aid to fire and accident victims until ambulances arrive, county officials said.

While the average firefighter is trained in basic lifesaving techniques, such as providing oxygen and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a firefighter-paramedic can perform specialized procedures such as inserting IVs and chest tubes.

These skills are administered in places where paramedics often don't go--trenches, steep cliffs and burning buildings. After victims are stabilized, they are transported to hospitals by paramedics with American Medical Response.

The $1.4-million program was first proposed in 1977 and surfaced again in 1995 and 1998, failing to win a majority of support on the county Board of Supervisors each time.

Former supervisors had feared the Fire Department was trying to compete with American Medical Response for business. But by joining forces and sharing the cost of the project, the department and ambulance service have put those fears to rest. In December, the supervisors approved the idea.

"The speed of response will be greatly increased," County Fire Chief Bob Roper said. "When they get to the scene, they will begin advanced life support."

Two squads will drive a pair of new yellow trucks carrying drugs and medical equipment. They will focus on the east county, where a booming population has made it difficult for American Medical's 14 ambulances to respond in the eight minutes considered critical for saving a life. Roper said the program may expand to the western part of the county.

American Medical officials said both sides benefit. The ambulance service's dispatch system will be restructured, rerouting all calls through the Fire Department. County dispatchers will determine who is closer to a call, a paramedic or a firefighter-paramedic. As a result, American Medical will be able to reduce the size of its dispatch staff and save money, said Butch Kedrowski, the company's operations manager.

The program was applauded by the Ventura County Professional Firefighter Assn. Local 1364, which represents the firefighters.

"It's an enhancement for public safety," said Chris Mahon, president of the union. "It has two levels to it. It enhances response time and it allows firefighter-paramedics the ability to go where civilian paramedics can't."

Firefighter-paramedics receive additional training and are certified in both professions. Beginning county firefighters make about $38,513 a year, said Sandi Wells, a spokeswoman for the County Fire Department. After completing the first two of three levels of paramedic training, they get a raise of about $3,081. When they complete the final level they get another $2,695, Wells said.

The city of Ventura has about 15 firefighter-paramedics assigned to five of its six engines. When the program began in 1996, the city fire professionals were both treating and transporting victims to the hospital. But after the California Supreme Court ruled the following year that counties, not cities, should decide who provides pre-hospital emergency services, the Board of Supervisors awarded the ambulance contract to American Medical.

City firefighter-paramedics continue to provide advanced medical care on scene until an ambulance arrives.

Capt. Don McPherson of the Ventura Fire Department said firefighter-paramedics have often saved lives.

"Normally, we get there before the ambulance and begin treatment immediately," McPherson said.

Last week, a man at a grocery store complained of chest pains, McPherson said. When firefighter-paramedics arrived, he went into full cardiac arrest. Using a defibrillator and medication to get his heart beating regularly again, the firefighter-paramedics saved the man's life.

"It's been extremely successful," McPherson said of the program. "Now there is no waiting or down time."

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