Wis. fire dept. teams up with EMS agency to combat paramedic shortage
Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance and the La Crosse Fire Department have agreed to a partnership that is expected to help solve the local paramedic shortage
By Mike Tighe
La Crosse Tribune
LA CROSSE, Wis. — Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance and the La Crosse Fire Department have agreed to a partnership that is expected to help solve the local paramedic shortage that mirrors the same problem nationwide.
The agreement, announced at a joint press conference Thursday at Tri-State headquarters in La Crosse and projected to take effect this summer, will allow fire department paramedics to apply for open paramedic positions at Tri-State, as well as fill paramedic shifts at the ambulance service as needed, Gundersen and city officials said.
Describing the memorandum of understanding as a win for both Tri-State and the city, Tri-State executive director Tom Tornstrom said, "We have a need for more paramedics, and the fire department has paramedics who want and need to keep up their training and time in the field."
The agreement will help Tri-State, which has 60 paramedics now, confront the challenge of short staffing, Tornstrom said.
Under the present arrangement, even firefighters who are paramedics accredited to provide advanced life support are able to work only at the emergency medical technician level.
The pact will help the fire department retain personnel who move on out of frustration at not being able to work to their full training level, Fire Chief Ken Gilliam said.
"We are hiring a lot of firefighter/paramedics. This will keep them engaged here instead of having them move on," he said, describing such turnover as a "ripple effect" of the status quo.
"Expanding our EMT capabilities to the paramedic level will better serve the community and, ultimately, save lives. This program allows our two organizations to support each other's core missions in true collaboration, while being fiscally responsible and providing maximum impact to area stakeholders," Gilliam said.
Most people don't realize that firefighters actually do much more than put out fires, he said, adding that they respond to all sorts of hazardous incidents, and about 80 percent of their workload is for EMT services.
When firefighter/paramedics work shifts at Tri-State, they will don Tri-State uniforms, Gilliam said.
Although such an accord is not new in the nation, it is unique to the state of Wisconsin, Gilliam said.
"We are moving into a new era," he said, adding, "We are just scratching the surface" of possibilities as opportunities to save money on supplies and equipment present themselves.
Dr. Scott Rathgaber, Gundersen's CEO, noting skepticism among some that such an arrangement was even possible, said, "This is it. This is the kind of community partnership that Gundersen wants to work in for the betterment of our community and improving the health and well-being of the communities we serve.
"This is an opportunity and an example of what we can do when we work together," Rathgaber said.
Common goals enabled the partnership to be realized, he said, also noting, "We are ultimately on the same team when it comes to keeping people safe and making sure our community has access to the best care."
Mayor Tim Kabat lauded the agreement as a team effort that included retired Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland, the city's EMS Commission and La Crosse Professional Firefighters Local 127.
Recalling the rancorous debate over ambulance service that pitted fire officials against Tri-State during city election campaigns in 2013, Kabat said, "It's amazing to me how far we have come in such a short time."
The agreement also "sets the stage for joint training and sharing equipment and supplies with Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance, saving taxpayer dollars. We look forward to growing this program in ways that further improve the health, safety and welfare for everyone in the Coulee Region."
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