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MFPD begins transition to offering full ALS care


September 21, 2005 - By LAURA UHLMANSIEK

Staff Reporter

The Mehlville Fire Protection District has begun training new employees — the first step in the district's transition to provide advanced life support care from all apparatus.

The 10 new employees will be able to work as both firefighters and paramedics so that the district's pumpers, which usually are the first to respond and provide ba-sic life support, will be able to provide ad-vanced life support, or ALS, care until an ambulance arrives.

"The most powerful thing for me is instead of five paramedic-equipped pieces of equipment, you're going to have 13," Chairman Aaron Hilmer told the Call. "Imagine the safety net you're going to cast over the district."

Until now, the district has had two separate divisions — a paramedic division and a firefighter division.

Assistant Chief Steve Mossotti told the Call that the district slowly will phase in the full ALS service program. The district will hire only people who are willing to work as firefighter/paramedics. Current employees can keep their status as a firefighter or a paramedic and will not be required to train to become firefighter/paramedics but may do so by their choice, Mossotti said.

"The new people coming in from this point on will have both qualifications and will be utilized on whichever truck we need them for our staffing," he said.

When Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman were elected in April, the district was in the process of hiring firefighters and paramedics. The two new board members halted the hiring and later restarted the process, but this time the district only accepted applicants who could work as both a firefighter and as a paramedic.

Mossotti said the district was seeking applicants who were state-licensed paramedics with Missouri State Firefighter I and II classification. Mossotti said firefighter certification was not required as long as the applicant was willing to obtain certification at the St. Louis Fire Acad-emy. Mossotti said the district received about 125 applicants, while in the past the district usually received double that amount.

"When you're just hiring firefighters without paramedic, there's a larger pool of individuals out there who meet that criteria," Mossotti said.

The applicants then went through a three-step process, where they were scored at each step and the three scores were averaged together. The highest scores were offered employment, contingent upon them passing a physical exam. The first step was a 100-question test, with 50 questions based on firefighter knowledge and 50 on paramedic knowledge. Of the 101 tests, the scores ranged from 44 to 75. The median score was 60 and the average was 60.2.

At past fire board meetings, residents and firefighters questioned the district's standards because the applicants had lower scores than previous applicants.

The district's last hiring process had 103 firefighters and 102 paramedics take separate exams. The firefighter test scores ranged from 45 to 90. The median score was 69 and the average score was 69.1. The paramedic test scores ranged from 52 to 92. The median score was 69 and the average score was 69.38.

Mossotti said the new tests and the previous tests came from the same textbook, but the new hires instead of taking a test that focused on a single topic had to be familiar with twice as much material.

"This is the first time that we had the combined, so the students had to study from two separate text books," he said. "... No, they weren't as high but the test is a completely different test over a more diverse amount of material so it's not really accurate to compare this test to other tests, it's not apples to apples."

Applicants with the top 40 scores were then interviewed with a review board, composed of four staff members and one civilian. Their scores were averaged with the test scores and the top 25 applicants were interviewed by the Board of Directors. That score was averaged together with the other two scores and the top eight applicants were offered a job. Applicants first had to pass a physical agility test, which simulated day-to-day tasks of the district employees.

"Each of these simulate actual tasks they would be doing and to see if they were comfortable wearing SCVAs (Self-Contained Viewing Apparatus), did they have any claustrophobia issues, did they have any problems with height," Mossotti said. "The last test they had to do was drag a section of hose 200 feet and then bring them back. So we were testing some of their skills, but also their stamina and ability."

The applicants also had to pass a full physical exam.

"We utilized St. Anthony's Medical Center and they went through a full physical, including stress test, pulmonary function, everything," Mossotti said. "After that, they go through another one, it's like a functional capacity. It's through a rehab center and they run them through a full range of motion. ... Another tests if you had any injuries to your knees, or joints or things that would hinder you from the job and it's to give us a baseline on these individuals for future so that we know what could they do when we hired them so if they suffer an injury we know what level we want to get them to."

"I think that overall the testing that we give them and the physical examination is a little bit more than other departments might do, we put a little bit more into our selection process," Mossotti said. "Part of it is to ensure that we are getting people that are capable, have the knowledge and skills but also the physical ability to perform their job and be able to do it long term."

Chris Francis, president of Mehlville Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said two firefighter/paramedics who were offered employment de-clined the employment, a sign that the district may no longer be considered a premier district.

"Two guys that got hired aren't even going to take the job now," Francis told the Call. "That is just huge. ... that has never happened before."

Mossotti said one of the men offered employment had already committed to another job offer and the second had decided to stay with his former employer.

Mossotti said this number of new hires is unusual for the district, but the fire district had to compensate for the reduction of staffing levels after the budget was tight in 2002 and for the recent retirements in the district.

The new hires will put the district at its minimum staffing level, which is 114 employees — 84 employees to man the pumpers and 30 to man the ambulances, he said.

Comptroller Jeff Geisler told the Call that under the former budget for this year, which was drawn up by the previous board and relied on the 33-cent tax-rate increase approved by voters in November, the district would have had 84 firefighters and 36 paramedics — a total of 120 employees. The board last month voted not to apply the tax rate increase to the district's property tax rate.

"We're not going to have the staffing that was originally planned in the budget," Geisler said. "... The thing in implementing the firefighter/paramedic program is you don't need the personnel that is needed when you have two separate divisions."

By going from 120 employees to 114, the district will have $600,000 less in personnel costs.

"The average employee costs $100,000, which is inclusive of payroll and all benefits," Geisler said.

Geisler said the new employees can cross over from pumpers to ambulances, so employing firefighter/paramedics is more cost effective than maintaining separate divisions of firefighters and paramedics. He and Mossotti told the Call that up until now, Mehlville had been the only fire district in the area that didn't require their employees to be firefighter/paramedics.

Geisler said other districts found maintaining two divisions wasn't cost effective and they switched to a firefighter/paramedic model.

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