Fire department closes in on paramedic-level service
By Jason Starr
A new plaque near the front door of the Williston Fire Department certifies the organization as a paramedic-level ambulance service.
The Vermont Department of Health granted the certification this month, opening the door for Williston’s ambulance service, which began in 2010 as an arm of the fire department, to provide the highest level of emergency first response in town and throughout Chittenden County.
The certification enables life-saving treatments and pain medications beyond what the department can currently provide as an advanced emergency medical technician-level organization. But the department won’t be ready to deploy paramedics until later this fall, when two new staffers are fully certified.
Fire Chief Ken Morton set out to fill two open positions this year with trained paramedics. Gabe Cummings, a native of Huntington, was hired in May, and Riley Moore, who moved to Vermont from Virginia this summer, came on board last week.
Cummings is nearing the end of a state-mandated probation period where he is shadowing other paramedics in Chittenden County. Moore is at the beginning of her probation period, which is expected to take four to eight weeks.
Both are excited to be the leading edge of the Williston Fire Department’s enhanced emergency response capabilities.
“It’s what drew me to this job in the first place,” Cummings said, “knowing that I was going to be one of the first paramedics, and to get to start that from the ground level and build that foundation is really cool.”
“It’s really fun to be a part of,” Moore echoed. “I’m really excited about figuring out what works best here and how to put the equipment, training and skills to use in the best way possible. I think it will be a huge step up for the area.”
Chittenden County was the last of Vermont’s emergency services districts to receive state allowance to operate ambulances at the paramedic level. Arguments about its proximity to the life-saving services at the UVM Medical Center held the district back for years. But in 2011, the county’s emergency services organizations successfully lobbied for state allowance, and ambulance services across the county have been steadily getting certified and hiring paramedics over the past six years.
Currently, if an emergency in Williston would benefit from paramedic-level care, the Williston Fire Department can draw from paramedics in neighboring towns. But if a paramedic has to come to Williston from Colchester, for example, it’s often faster for Williston personnel to head straight to the hospital rather than wait for a paramedic to drive to the emergency scene. Also, paramedics from neighboring towns are not always available.
Adding two in-house paramedics will give Williston nearly full paramedic coverage. When both Cummings and Moore have completed their probation period, the Williston Fire Department will have roughly five days per week of paramedic coverage.
Chief Morton said the department will continue to staff up with paramedics, either with per diem help or by training existing staff, to work toward full coverage.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Morton said. “It’s good for the community and good for the patient … We are really happy to move forward with it.”
The certification means Williston ambulances can administer heavy pain medications like fentanyl and morphine on the scene of an emergency and during ambulance rides to the hospital. It also allows for the operation of advanced airway opening machines and cardiac interventions.
According to Morton, the department received an anonymous donation of $25,000 from a Williston resident to outfit its two ambulances with the drugs, drug safe and machinery needed to administer paramedic-level care.
“This is a giant leap forward,” fire department public information officer Prescott Nadeau said.