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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley Fire focused on increasing number of paramedics on duty

Spokane Valley paramedic Jeff Smetzler talks about the job at Station 9 on Oct. 12. It’s one of three stations in the department that isn’t staffed by paramedics full time.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Paramedics began working out of Spokane Valley Fire Station 9 near the southern edge of Spokane Valley this fall for the first time since it opened in 2009.

While the station still only has a paramedic on duty about 40% of the time, it marks an important step toward the department having 24/7 paramedic coverage at all 10 of its stations, Valley Fire EMS Chief John Leavell said. Stations 4 in Otis Orchards and 10 in Greenacres also do not have paramedics on duty around the clock.

The issue for years has been the difficulty in getting enough paramedics to complete the 18-month training to replace retiring or departing paramedics as well as add new positions, Leavell said. Paramedics are crucial because they provide advanced life support care.

“We’ve got ALS gear on all the apparatus,” Leavell said. “We’re just short on paramedics. We’re slowly getting there.”

Paramedics are authorized to administer significantly more drugs than EMTs can and can also put in IVs, intubate patients who are having problems breathing and hook up and read a cardiac monitor.

“A lot of the things people picture happening in the emergency room, we can do,” Valley Fire paramedic Jeff Smetzler said.

Leavell said the department has strategically selected where there are not full-time paramedics so coverage can be filled in as easily as possible. In the case of Station 9, it is surrounded by stations that do have 24/7 paramedic coverage. Those stations include Station 84 in the Ponderosa neighborhood, in Spokane County Fire District 8. The district has a mutual aid agreement with Valley Fire that allows them to send crews, including paramedics, into the department’s area to assist and vice versa.

The shortage of paramedics is not new and it’s not unique to Valley Fire, Leavell said. Recently, the Spokane Fire Department has been struggling with the same issue and has had to reduce the number of stations that have paramedics on call 24/7, he said. One of the problems is that although the department will pay for paramedic school, it essentially means the firefighter is working full time and going to school full time. That can be difficult to manage on top of a family, particularly a family with young children, Leavell said.

“It’s a grind,” Leavell said. “There’s not other way to do it.”

Part of the issue is that the number of calls the department responds to each year went up 40% during the pandemic and hasn’t gone back down, Leavell said. This has made crews, including paramedics, busier. This affects the mental health, morale and training of existing paramedics, Leavell said.

“It impacts our crews exponentially,” he said.

The department tracks its calls for service and the data shows that the number of ALS calls start to pick up around 10 a.m. and peak at around 8 p.m., Leavell said.

Smetzler said the department is dedicated to getting treatment to patients as soon as possible.

“We get the patient quick and intervene,” he said. “Our interventions are done quickly on scene.”

Firefighters have to be a certified EMT for at least a year and take several anatomy and physiology courses before enrolling in a 12-month program that requires a minimum of 1,300 hours of training in classrooms and hospitals.

Smetzler, who has been a paramedic for decades, said it makes sense for the department to pay for the training.

“The benefit to the department over a 20-year career is probably millions of dollars,” he said.

In the past few years, the department’s committed effort to train new paramedics is beginning to pay off. Six paramedics were certified last year and five more will be certified next month. Another group is set to start training next month.

“We do our best to be ahead of the curve as best we can,” Smetzler said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

The goal is to get all paramedics into all 10 fire stations around the clock, Leavell said, and Fire Chief Frank Soto Jr. is committed to that goal.

“That’s our hope, to be able to do that on a full-time basis,” he said. “He sees the value in it. If it were up to him, everyone would be a paramedic. This is driven by our chiefs.”