Minnesota EMS Plan Draws Fire From Volunteers

Volunteer firefighters in Maplewood are feeling a new kind of heat. City management has proposed creating six full-time firefighter-paramedic positions, a move that would reduce the need for the trained volunteers who respond to 911 emergency calls.

Many of these 80 men and women believe the plan would shift the fire department from a community-based to a full-time operation that will cost more money and reduce the quality of services to Maplewood residents.

City officials who support creating the full-time positions say the plan delivers more bang for the buck and frees up police officers who are trained as paramedics to do the law enforcement work that's needed.

The differences of opinion have created a war of words. Both sides agree that more police officers and paramedics are needed.

To City Manager Richard Fursman and Police Chief Dave Thomalla, the solution is simple: Transfer part of the paramedic responsibilities from the police to the fire department. However, the firefighters say the plan is unworkable and describe it as the "first step on a very slippery slope."

The fight starts with how to approach the police-paramedic program. In 1975, Maplewood pioneered a program whereby willing and able cops were trained as paramedics, with the goal of reducing response times to an emergency situation.

"You have police officers trained as paramedics in squad cars out in the street," Thomalla said, so that help might happen to be on patrol, just around the corner from a medical emergency.

However, several of these police-medics have been promoted to leadership ranks over the years, and their duties as medics have at times conflicted with their supervisory roles at an accident or crime scene.

Plus, the seven other police officers who also are paramedics are working overtime to meet policing and medical duties, Thomalla said.

Under the plan supported by Fursman and Thomalla, four paramedic positions now within the police department would "switch badges" and become trained as firefighters.

The other two of the six proposed positions would be new hires. The roughly $100,000 needed for the two hires would come from reducing the number of calls that go out to the volunteer firefighters who are compensated about $14 per call.

"We're dealing with police burnout in the system," Fursman said. "If we could get (the fire department) to help, it would help us a lot."

But Erik Hjelle, a volunteer firefighter in Maplewood for four years, said the proposal means the continuing demise of a volunteer firefighting program that's been grossly mismanaged by the city's leaders.

Already the number of volunteers who wear pagers at all times and live throughout the city has dwindled from 160 volunteers in 1992 to about 80 today. Volunteers began receiving fewer calls for service when the city hired several full-time firefighters several years ago, and the problem will worsen with six more full-timers, Hjelle said.

"The people that are leaving now or want to leave are sick of the politics," according to one firefighter who declined to give his name for fear of being fired.

Before long, Hjelle said, the volunteer ranks will diminish to the point that the city would be forced to fund an extensive, full-time fire department, even though medical emergencies not fire make up about 75 percent of the city's 911 calls.

Indeed, an outside consultant hired by the city has recommended that another six to nine full-time firefighter-paramedics eventually be hired to round out the department.

That's ridiculous, said Chris Cahill, who's logged eight years as a volunteer firefighter in Maplewood.

"You have a police shortage; you have a medic shortage, but the solution is to hire primarily firefighter medics?" he asked.

Cahill and Hjelle, as well as Council Member Marvin Koppen would like to see the city hire more police-paramedics.

Plus, Cahill said, "a police officer sitting at an intersection is doing a job, while a firefighter that's not responding to an emergency isn't providing a service at that time."

Thomalla responded that the full-time firefighters would take on responsibilities such as emergency vehicle maintenance and local code enforcement, previously performed by community service police officers. Code enforcement could include ensuring residents' garbage cans are placed properly.

Full-time firefighters also would alleviate the shortage of available volunteers during the daytime hours, when many paid-on-call firefighters are working regular jobs, he said.

Thomalla added that it's been difficult to find qualified police-paramedics. Two police officers the city recently sent to medic school failed the tests, wasting a year's time and wages, and $10,000 in educational costs for each.

The firefighters insist their resistance to the city's plan isn't about money. Although a few depend on the "little bit of income," most join the department to perform a service for Maplewood, Hjelle said.

The City Council must decide on the proposal before the end of the year, and funding for the plan has been included in the city's proposed budget, according to Council Member Will Rossbach.