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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Firefighters get medic training

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's a given among firefighters racing to an emergency that every minute counts. Now, the Honolulu Fire Department is about to gain a little extra time.

Honolulu Fire Department recruits head for a debriefing after a training exercise. The graduating class of 45 received specialized training that should help them assess a patient's condition before the ambulance arrives.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

When its class of 45 recruits graduates today, they will be the first in the department to have received specialized emergency medical training. They will be rated one step above current firefighters, better able to assess a patient's condition while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, said Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi.

"It will really help us with diagnostic skills," Leonardi said. "We can do a little more than we can now in preparing the patient for (an ambulance)."

The new skills should fit well with the department's changing role. Although their main job is putting out fires, most calls to the department now are for emergency services, Leonardi said.

In 1994, 65 percent of calls were for fires. By 1997, 62 percent of calls were for medical emergencies — a trend that continues today.

It took the department six years to get the course in place. The effort began with Leonardi's predecessor, Anthony Lopez.

Before the course was ready, Leonardi said state Emergency Medical Services officials had to approve of a new class of basic medical responder for the fire department, dubbed EMT-B.

"It was a long, drawn-out process," he said. "We are surprised we are even here at this point."

The recruits' 21-week course began in October, and included the six-week National Registry Emergency Medical Technician Basic Course, said Capt. Dave Takehara, who supervises medical training for the department. The course holds them to a national standard.

"They will be able to better recognize emergencies," Takehara said.

Leonardi said he wants to make the medical course a mandatory part of recruit training. Veteran firefighters also may be included. "After this, we will work backward and train the remainder of our department," Takehara said. "It will take about five years."

The recruits said the medical course was intense. Their training included medical and trauma assessment, cardiac care management, administering oxygen and working with patients who might have spinal injuries.

They are not allowed to administer medication.

Lono Kane, a 27-year-old recruit from Kailua, is excited about what he's learned, even if the responsibilities are greater than when he applied to become a firefighter.

"Regardless of whether our responsibilities have grown, they've trained us better," Kane said. "It's going to allow us to better serve the public."

Kiana Ugalde, a 26-year-old recruit from Makakilo, rolled her eyes when she thought of the test.

"I have flashbacks," she said with a nervous laugh. "It was a lot of stress. The functional skills were difficult. It was a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time."

But she's confident.

"You do have that knowledge there," she said. "You might not remember it all the time, but when you see the incident it will pop back up."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.