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City council mulls emergency medical responder training for firefighters

Council directs staff to prepare report on firefighter medical training upgrades
Karen Fry, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief, makes her annual report to Nanaimo councillors Monday. (CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin)

Nanaimo’s firefighters could soon be administering more than just oxygen when they arrive at everything from cardiac arrests to car accidents.

Nanaimo councillors voted at a governance and priorities committee meeting on Monday to direct city staff to prepare a report on enhancing pre-hospital care by bringing firefighters up to emergency medical responder (EMR) level. The decision followed an annual report from Nanaimo Fire Rescue Chief Karen Fry during which she recommended Nanaimo firefighters be trained to provide EMR-standard care.

Currently 66 per cent of calls Nanaimo Fire Rescue responds to are medical. In more than 65 per cent of those responses, firefighters are on the scene at least one minute before B.C. Ambulance paramedics and in 48 per cent of incidents, more than three minutes ahead.

The minutes before treatment can be initiated can be crucial to a patient’s survival, said Fry, and in some cases, medical emergencies happen in locations such as steep slopes and other difficult-to-access or dangerous locations that firefighters are equipped and trained to reach.

Other fire departments on the Island and Lower Mainland are already adding higher-level medical equipment on their trucks and upgrading firefighter training. Fire departments in Alberta, Manitoba and in the U.S. have various levels of EMS capability, including Winnipeg, which has paramedics in its fire department responding to medical emergencies.

“We still would go to the same call, but provide a higher level of service to our community,” Fry said during her presentation.

Fry said according to a study from the University of Fraser Valley, firefighters in Delta can often have a patient’s blood pressure and other vital signs checked and initial treatment started, allowing ambulance paramedics to get the patient packaged and transported to hospital faster.

“We don’t want to take over the role of ambulance service in B.C. They have a very important role to do, but we want to provide the best service that we can until they arrive on scene as well as in [emergency scenes] providing for our firefighters as well,” she said.

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In an interview the day after Monday’s meeting, Fry said some of Nanaimo’s paid on-call firefighters, such as those on Protection Island, are already trained to EMR standard.

If council ultimately approves the training, Nanaimo Fire Rescue will phase it in, getting a few firefighters certified each year and bringing needed medical equipment aboard its trucks.

“That’s kind of what we’ve seen in places like North Van, Campbell River or Delta, is that they slowly bring their whole department on. It’s not a one-shot deal where everybody gets trained all at once because most of them have to go away to be tested,” she said.

Phasing in higher levels of firefighter medical care training has been driven by the needs of a community. With EMR, firefighters could administer nitroglycerin or Aspirin to patients with cardiac conditions, stabilize and immobilize fractures, measure blood pressure, oxygen and glucose levels and provide other initial emergency care.

“If you recall it was only in the last two years firefighters were allowed to administer Naloxone. As a first responder, they weren’t allowed to administer Naloxone and yet we trust so much of the public to administer it and EpiPens and things like that, so not being able to provide that on scene, it’s very difficult if people have glucose or nitroglycerin and we can’t administer that for them,” Fry said.

When the training could be phased in will be up to council, Fry said, but if approved in the next budget, the first of Nanaimo’s full-time firefighters could start training in early 2020.

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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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