Chief's plan under fire to train medics as firefighters

Paramedics say the plan will dilute the care they provide and prevent promotions for those who don't cross train

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Paramedics with the Alexandria (Va.) Fire Department are fighting the fire chief's plan to cross train them as firefighters.

The Washington Post reported that Fire Chief Robert Dubé's plan will ensure that at least one person in every fire crew will be certified in ALS. He said the change will provide better service to residents who need emergency care.

Paramedics say the proposal will dilute the care they provide and prevent promotions for those who don't cross-train. They also said the plan will force medics to work one-third more hours for only 10 to 20 percent more pay.

"Any time you try to merge two organizations, like in any other business, you're going to get some kickback," said Barbara L. Klingensmith, who teaches management, leadership and EMS courses for the University of Florida and the National Fire Academy. "People have a clear understanding of what they want to do when they sign up as a firefighter or paramedic."

The department has been trying to combine its two staffs for years, but hired 23 single-role paramedics in 2013 to fill a shortfall that had reached dangerous levels, according to the report.

Alexandria's firefighters are trained as EMTs, which allow them to provide basic medical care. But if a resident needs ALS, they have to wait until medics arrive.

Dubé's plan would move one medic to a fire engine, adding a fourth person to the truck, allowing the first-arriving vehicle to provide advanced medical care. 

Ambulances would be staffed with a single paramedic and a driver who is a firefighter with basic EMT certification. It would take about five years for the changeover to be completed, Dubé said.

Dubé and City Manager Mark Jinks said that medics who choose not to cross-train can keep their jobs, but new hires must be certified in both firefighting and ALS as a paramedic, according to the report.

As of last month, 26 firefighters have completed or are enrolled in paramedic certification, and 12 paramedics have completed or are enrolled in firefighter certification classes. The cost of the additional training has been built into the department’s budget.

The Alexandria Professional Medics Association opposes the plan.

"If the chief believes he needs a paramedic on every fire truck ... then hire more personnel, don't take them away from the [ambulance] transport units," said Michael Kohrt, president-elect of the medics association. "If it's not change for the better, we should be resistant to it."

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