A program update by the Denver Health Paramedic Division staff
When the wildfires of 2008 gained national attention, the command staff at Denver Health Paramedic Division (DHPD) began asking themselves if there was a role for paramedics on the fire line.
“We were saddened by the firefighters who lost their lives in California and we wanted to find a way to help,” said DHPD Deputy Chief Marc Scherschel, who spearheaded the development of the Wildland Paramedic Team.
One of the busiest and most prestigious EMS providers in the country, DHPD is the sole provider of 911 emergency services to the city and county of Denver and runs an average of 100,000 calls annually. In addition to EMS, DHPD is known as a model in education and innovation, home to a top notch paramedic and EMT training school, and creators of one of the first bike-medic programs. The bike medic team was created in response to challenges navigating medical calls during Denver’s 1991 Grand Prix event.
Paramedics, especially those who are hospital-based like DHPD, have extensive medical experience, which allows them to make medical decisions quickly in emergency situations and manage a wide range of medical situations.
“As a hospital-based EMS system, our staff is not only highly skilled, but is well-practiced in providing medical care in high stress environments,” Scherschel said.
With the support of hospital leadership, DHPD launched the first Wildland Team in 2013 with 14 members.
“Our Wildland Team is non-fire based,” said DHPD Captain Josh Kennedy, who manages the team. “Instead of starting with firefighting skills and augmenting them with basic medical training, we went the other way. We start will medical skills and go through training to learn firefighting skills.”
Paramedics who are interested in being a part of the Wildland Team are subject to an extensive screening process and physical tryouts. Those who pass spend a considerable amount of time training with the current team to learn the basics of wildfire line management and rudimentary firefighting skills. They also train in-house on providing long-term medical care in the backcountry.
“The expectation on the fire line is that everyone has the skills to pitch in if a fire gets out of control,” said Kennedy. “While our Team’s primary purpose is to provide medical support to firefighters, we feel confident we can get in there and play back-up to firefighters if needed.”
In fact, that is exactly what happened with one of the Wildland Team members in 2016 at the Beaver Creek Fire in Colorado. According to Chad Onthank with Rocky Mountain Fire, the DHPD paramedic assigned to his crew played a hands-on role in extinguishing spot fires when the fire they were monitoring jumped the line.
“I have been in other situations where the medic remained in their vehicle, but Paramedic Patrick Horan got out, dressed in full PPE, and helped the entire team by actively engaging and controlling spot fires while clearly and calmly communicating about his conditions, actions and needs over the radio,” said Onthank in a letter of appreciation to DHPD leaders.
To the knowledge of DHPD, the Wildland Team is still the only one of its kind; however, because of its success, it may serve as a model for other paramedic programs down the road. Medical support on the fire line isn’t new, but this Wildland Paramedic Team changes the game.
“Our team is raising the bar for how medical care is provided at the fire line,” said Scherschel. “We provide advanced medical care and life support, we carry medications and we are trained in basic firefighting skills, all of which allow us to contribute to firefighter safety in a wildfire environment, which is our most important priority.”
The Wildland Team has mostly been deployed across the western US region, but it takes some careful consideration and a lot of advanced planning to ensure there are still enough paramedics to cover the day-to-day needs of Denver. DHPD allows no more than six paramedics to leave on deployment at any given time. They may deploy as single resources on multiple fires or multiple resources on the same fire. Getting the first round out the door is no problem, but when those paramedics come back, getting out rounds two, three, four and so on gets difficult. Part of the challenge in fulfilling these calls for deployment is the realization that wildfire season coincides with the Division’s busy summer season.
Scherschel said part of his vision for the Wildland Team is continued growth which will allow for more deployments. When they started in 2013, there were 14 members and this year they are up to 23.
The Wildland Team selection process is thorough and physically challenging. A careful examination of each employee’s standing within the Division, individual background checks and prior experience operating outdoors are all taken into consideration for the coveted spots. There were many applicants for this year’s 2017 team and 23 were selected.
Those selected to tryout must prove they are in excellent physical shape by passing a pack test and show they are adept at providing decisive, high quality medical care under stress. Once new members complete both online and classroom training, they do hands-on and field training with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. They also are required to complete a yearly re-certification with the Denver Fire Department.
When deployed, Wildland Team members spend as mucy as two weeks on the fire line, working 16-hour days and camping with the firefighting team. According to Kennedy, who’s been deployed twice, it’s grueling but rewarding work. Since its inception four years ago, the Wildland Team has deployed 31 members to fires in seven states, including Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Alaska.
Financially, the Wildland Team is relatively inexpensive to operate. DHPD doesn’t send ambulances to the fire line, just well-outfitted SUV’s, and each member of the Wildland Team is already employed by the Division, so no additional staffing resources are required. DHPD pays the costs at the time of the deployment, but is ultimately reimbursed by the state of Colorado.
The gears of innovation never stop at DHPD and while the Wildland Paramedic Team is highly regarded across the region and often asked for by name, Kennedy says they are always seeking ways to fine-tune the Team’s readiness, especially in the areas of firefighting skills. They plan to add more skills tests and trainings, including a course in advanced fire behavior.
To learn more about DHPD and its other ongoing initiatives and opportunities, visit www.denverhealthparamedics.org, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 303-602-2566.