- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson yesterday said the department no longer will hire firefighters who are not paramedics or who are not going to be trained as paramedics upon entering the fire academy.

The pledge came in response to aggressive questioning from D.C. Council members during a Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.

The hearing was dominated by questions about the department’s slow-moving transition to a fire-based emergency medical service system in which firefighters and paramedics are cross-trained to perform each other’s jobs.

“This is the system you are advocating, so implement it already. Stop talking about it,” said council member David A. Catania, at-large independent.

Mr. Catania repeatedly said that many of the same problems he heard voiced at an oversight hearing a year ago still were unresolved. He suggested inserting a provision into the city’s budget that would withhold the fire chief’s pay unless progress is made in unifying the department.

Mr. Catania and council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, questioned whether the chief had set firm-enough goals for transforming the department.

“I am disappointed that we haven’t moved farther, faster along the lines advocated by this administration,” said Mrs. Patterson, who is running for council chairman.

Chief Thompson said the department has made strides in training firefighters as paramedics, but said a nationwide shortage has hampered recruiting for new paramedics.

“There’s just a dearth of paramedics,” he said. “There’s not that many of them out there in the country.”

About half of the city’s ambulances carry emergency medical technicians (EMTs), who are trained to assess a patient’s condition and manage respiratory and cardiac emergencies.

All firefighters who started working in the District after 1978 are expected to maintain certification as EMTs. In fact, four ambulances are staffed exclusively by firefighters, and other firefighters fill in on ambulances on an as-needed basis.

The other ambulances and about eight firetrucks carry paramedics, who are trained to perform advanced medical procedures. For example, paramedics can administer drugs orally and intravenously and perform intubations.

The goal of the department is to have an advanced life-support provider on every fire engine and every ambulance.

Council member Phil Mendelson, the at-large Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, said the process toward that goal has been “tortuously slow.”

“Is there a commitment to the dual-role, cross-trained system? And if there is a commitment, when do we get there?” he asked.

Fire chiefs from Nashville, Tenn., and Miami testified that the most effective way to deliver emergency medical services is through the fire department.

“What you are struggling here with emergency medical services as a city and as a community is not unique to Washington, D.C.,” said Chief John Sinclair, EMS section secretary for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Chief Thompson cited several successes, including reducing the number of paramedic vacancies from 50 last year to 31 this year.

He said that since October, the department was able to provide advanced life support to the most critical calls within 8 minutes 82.1 percent of the time. The measure stood at 72.6 percent of the time last year.

The department’s goal is to provide advanced life support to the most critical calls within 8 minutes at least 90 percent of the time.

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