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Rescue crew switcheroo?

Deputy Fire Chief Tige Watson describes the features of the Lifepak 15 monitor and defibrillator, which paramedics can use to provide advanced life support to patients.  (Dean Hanson/Journal)
Deputy Fire Chief Tige Watson describes the features of the Lifepak 15 monitor and defibrillator, which paramedics can use to provide advanced life support to patients. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
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FOR THE RECORD: The word “switcheroo” could have been misconstrued in the headline on this story. The standard dictionary definition for “switcheroo” describes it as an unexpected change, and many definitions say it implies a joke or sleight of hand.

Mayor Richard Berry’s administration says it can reduce emergency-response times by equipping fire engines with new equipment and staffing them with paramedics.

It would be a major change in how the Fire Department has operated for decades.

Instead of assigning two paramedics to each rescue unit — an ambulance-like vehicle — there would be just one, with the other going to a fire engine. A regular firefighter, in turn, would move to the rescue unit, replacing the paramedic.

Essentially, it allows the city to double the number of units that have a paramedic assigned, from 20 to 42, Fire Chief James Breen said.

Putting the plan into action will start with the purchase of about $998,000 in equipment for paramedics: Lifepak 15 defibrillator units that are used to monitor and treat patients. Authorization to spend the money will go before the City Council on April 1.

“There’s no legitimate reason not to do this,” Breen said in an interview. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right time to do it.”

No outright opposition to the plan has emerged yet, though some city councilors have suggested the administration proceed deliberately to ensure the opinions of rank-and-file firefighters are considered.

The council voted 5-3 last week to pull the proposal out of a committee and schedule it for consideration April 1, over the objection of Democrats Isaac Benton, Rey Garduño and Ken Sanchez.

“It seems to me, given where we stand, this could certainly benefit from more discussion,” said Benton, who favored leaving the bill in committee.

In any case, the measure will be debated at the April 1 meeting.

Diego Arencón, president of the firefighters’ union, said he will meet with Deputy Fire Chief Tige Watson today to jointly appoint a committee to develop the plan.

“As we are not fundamentally opposed, we do have concerns about this initiative being politicized and feel it requires the opinion and scrutiny from the professionals who actually perform the job (paramedic firefighters),” he said in a written statement.

He noted that the approval of the funding for the Lifepaks “has no bearing on how the department assigns paramedic personnel to ensure citizen and firefighter safety.”

The union and fire administration, Arencón said, “are in agreement to form a working committee of field personnel to develop a plan and provide official recommendations to our labor-management committee for responsible implementation.”

Watson, the deputy chief who oversees emergency medical services, said the proposed changes have been under discussion for years, but the fire administration does intend to discuss it further.

“We want to get the input of the people out there, the boots on the ground,” Watson said.

Breen is enthusiastic about the change. Putting a paramedic on fire engines is the industry standard elsewhere in the country, he said.

Among the benefits listed by Breen:

♦ If a rescue unit is already dispatched to an incident, there could still be a paramedic available on an un-dispatched fire engine to respond to other emergencies.

♦ If an engine crew is out to an assignment, it will already have a paramedic on hand if one is needed unexpectedly.

Meanwhile, for some events, when two paramedics are needed, both an engine and a rescue vehicle can be dispatched, he said.

Breen estimates the city will be able to reduce response times by 17 percent, or about 47 seconds on average. Every second can affect a patient’s prospects for survival.

Even with a paramedic, fire engines won’t be expected to transport patients to the hospital. Albuquerque Ambulance, a private contractor, does almost all of the actual transports, regardless of whether an AFD rescue unit is there.

Breen believes the change will make the department more efficient and even save some operating money.

“A lot of departments have evolved to this,” he said. “It’s time for us to do it.”

Change won’t happen immediately if councilors approve the money, he said. It will take four to six months to roll out the plan and alter staffing patterns.

The Albuquerque Fire Department employs about 670 firefighters, roughly 200 of whom are paramedics. About 18 percent of the department’s firefighters will be affected, with 66 paramedics moving to engines and 57 regular firefighters moving to rescue units.

The department’s medical director supports the change.

“This is the biggest change we’ve had in the last 30 years,” Breen said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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