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'A valuable purpose': Partnership aims to tackle EMT shortages

In Dickinson, Sanford Health and the Dickinson Fire Department have teamed up to offer an EMT course. Though the main intent was looking for an abridged course that helps firefighters receive their EMT licensing, this course allows them to become a “quick response unit.”

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During an EMT class at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center on June 24, 2021, Dickinson probationary firefighter Hunter Flynn is used to demonstrate how to secure a patient as a fellow firefighter instructs students how patients should be packaged on a longboard if they have potential spinal injuries. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

Imagine coming across a tractor flipped over into the ditch and a farmer covered in blood, struggling for breath on the side of US-85 South on the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway near the barren city of Amidon. Imagine yourself alone, frantic and because you’re not versed in emergency situations, you don’t know how to help him. The 911 operator tells you it’s going to be about a 20-minute wait before an ambulance arrives. The reality of living in a rural community haunts you and you’re wishing you would’ve taken that CPR class in college.

Knowing even the basics of a freshman CPR class may help those that you stumble upon on an everyday basis. Though most people seek out EMT training to become a volunteer for their ambulance or fire department, Emergency Medical Services is an educational route that can serve the average Joe.

In Dickinson, Sanford Health and the Dickinson Fire Department have teamed up to offer an EMT course. Though the main intent was looking for an abridged course that helps firefighters receive their EMT licensing, this course allows them to become a “quick response unit." Being first responders, firefighters respond to some of the more life threatening emergencies in the Dickinson area, Sanford Health EMS Operations Supervisor Tyler Kientopf said, adding that they also opened it up to others interested in obtaining their certification.

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An EMT class carefully positions a patient on a long board as Dickinson firefighter Mason Geiger provides guidance June 24, 2021, at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

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“There's no doubt in my mind that health care, as a whole, is experiencing shortages (with) all types of staff and that doesn't exclude EMS across the nation. But here specifically in North Dakota, we are mostly rural communities,” Kientopf said.

Though the Dickinson Area Ambulance Service and the Metro Area Ambulance Services in Bismarck offer paid positions, most rural ambulance services rely heavily on volunteers, Kientopf noted. By giving people enough classes to help support that demand for EMTs is extremely important, he added.

“I think because we live in such a rural state, obtaining those certifications — whether it's basic CPR and first aid or all the way up to EMT or advanced EMT or paramedic — they serve a valuable purpose in our day to day lives. Because at any given time, we could be home and it could be one of our loved ones. Because of our rural nature, it takes time to get to those places. It's not uncommon for western North Dakota or southwestern North Dakota, where you could be waiting up to 20 to 30 minutes for that ambulance to arrive in some areas,” Kientopf said. “... So having additional medical knowledge or (an) ability to control bleeding or provide CPR in those types of emergencies helps increase the chance of survival to our loved ones and everyone else that we are around on a daily basis.”

Sara Rhode, who’s been a health sciences teacher for three years at Dickinson High School, is slipping into a new role as being the EMS instructor for the course. However, education and EMS have gone hand-in-hand for Rhode who has been teaching for 10 years. Before moving to Dickinson, Rhode taught nursing staff in Wisconsin. Upon her arrival on the Western Edge, her job as a respiratory therapist in cardiac rehab revolved around patient education. She was also previously employed part-time through the Dickinson Area Ambulance Service.

“... I love EMS, so when I took the classes myself for EMT and advanced EMT, I just loved it. So I’m like, ‘I want to pass it on to other people,’” Rhode said. “... This is my way of still staying in EMS and still feeling like I’m contributing.”

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Dickinson volunteer firefighters Destry Skinner (left) and Haley Cole gather equipment to get pretend patient Hunter Flynn stabilized on a long backboard while Aisosa Bello (far right) holds cervical spine precautions. The four people are part of the EMT course offered through Sanford Health and the Dickinson Fire Department. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

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Dickinson probationary firefighter Hunter Flynn listens on during an EMT class at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center June 24, 2021. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

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Within the EMS field, there are different levels. The first is becoming an emergency medical responder (EMR); people must be 16 or older in order to take the EMR course. However, people can also jump right into an EMT course without being an EMR. From there, people can become an advanced EMT to paramedic and go as far as being a critical care paramedic.

Rhode noted that the EMT course through Sanford Health and the DFD is fast paced whereas other EMT courses that are offered via a trade school or college usually last between six and eight months. With the two month long course, students are diving into four to five chapters each week, in which each chapter is close to 100 pages in depth.

The course, approved through the North Dakota State Department of Health, lasts approximately between 150-200 hours or about two months. With all of the clinical experiences taken into account, students will be around the 165 hour-mark at the end of the course.

“They do a lot of independent learning; they have to be self-motivated. So it will be exciting to see if it’s doable (and) that they’re successful. They’re all doing really well now, so I think that’s a big thing,” Rhode said.

Rhode’s husband, Jared, is a full-time DFD firefighter who’s in charge of all the training that fire personnel have to go through and was also an initiator of this partnership. Having that collaborative effort between Sanford Health and the DFD is beneficial, Rhode said, adding that all full-time firefighters are required to earn their EMT certification. This connection is a way for the hospital to not only boost education efforts, but gives fire personnel an opportunity to teach as well.

Since the course launched in mid-June, firefighters have stepped into the classroom to teach a lesson during the week and help alleviate some of the burden for Rhode.

“Their help is awesome… We have a good handful of the full-time firefighters that have signed up to help, which is good for them because they’re continuing (their) education as well (to maintain) their licenses to maintain,” Rhode said, adding, “It’s nice because it takes a load off of me because I do all the behind the scenes stuff like making sure they have their immunizations submitted for their ride-alongs, scheduling where they’re going to be to do patient-contact stuff. I do a lot of the housekeeping, so it’s nice if I don’t have to worry about reviewing some material before class to teach.”

At the end of the course, students will take a national registry test that has two components — a written exam and a practical (or scenario) exam. If students pass the national exam, they will qualify to be certified through the state of North Dakota. From there, students can volunteer or get hired with their local ambulance and fire services.

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Though most of the students are either seeking to further their careers in the medical field or fire service after taking this EMT course,

“We are very rural out here, so if we can get any type of medically trained first responders, be it CPR, first aid, EMR, it's only going to help,” Rhode said, adding, “There’s never going to be a problem having too many... careers in health care.”

For those interested in learning more about course offerings through Sanford Health, visit sanfordhealth.org.

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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