Calif. city firefighters let EMT certification lapse

Nearly one in four members, including the Compton Fire Chief, are working without an EMT certification

Los Angeles Times

COMPTON, Calif. — Nearly one in four Compton firefighters is working without a permit to perform emergency medical care, a key credential required by other local fire agencies, a Times investigation has found.

Out of 74 firefighters at the Compton Fire Department, 17 lack a valid emergency medical technician, or EMT, card, according to city records obtained via the California Public Records Act. That amounts to 23% of the agency’s rank and file. 

Top officials are scrambling to certify rescuers who lost their permits in recent years, according to Fire Chief Jon Thompson. 

“It’s something that never happened before and it’ll never happen again,” Thompson said. “It’s being cleaned up.”

The uncertified list ranges from firefighters in the lowest ranks up to Thompson himself, a former paramedic, city data show.

To become an EMT in California, students must learn how to handle patients with severe trauma, properly dress wounds and deliver shocks to cardiac arrest victims. A regime of refresher courses is required every two years.

“There were several individuals that didn’t get recertified and they lapsed,” Thompson said.

Ten of the uncertified firefighters are still stationed at the city’s four firehouses, but limited to an assisting role when responding to 911 calls for medical help, he said. The other seven are higher-ranking officials who perform office work.

Thompson said no harm has come to the public. Uncertified firefighters were ordered several months ago to qualify for EMT cards by the end of May, he said.

Over the last four decades, fire departments across the country have shifted from fighting fires to mostly responding to 911 calls for emergency medical help.

"The primary responsibility of firefighters is medical care. They shouldn't be allowed to work in the field" without up-to-date training, said Marc Eckstein, an emergency-room physician and medical director for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

"The skills change on a regular basis. Something as fundamental as CPR has changed considerably in the past few years," he said.

The Times surveyed 15 of the busiest fire agencies in Los Angeles County and found that Compton is the only one without an official rule requiring every firefighter be a certified EMT.

But because no state law requires that firefighters carry an EMT card, officials said departments largely police their own by conducting in-house trainings that ensure every firefighter remains certified.

Chief Thompson said Compton aims to push for a universal EMT requirement in the next round of negotiations with the union representing city firefighters. Starting last year, a permit became aprerequisite for new hires, he said.

“I am taking the responsibility now to do it,” Thompson said.

Compton is separately under orders to fix a number of problems cited last year by the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services Agency, which oversees 911 service in the area, officials said.

That agency's director, Cathy Chidester, said confidentiality rules prevent her from releasing the department's evaluation, but that her staff is working to improve Compton's level of care.

"It is concerning for us to have a department that isn't meeting the standards of the other 911 agencies," she said.

Copyright 2015 Los Angeles Times
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