The St. Augustine Fire Department now has two more certified paramedics responding to emergencies throughout the city through training support provided through CareerSource NEFL.
With a team of 33 line firefighters and a total staff of 35, the department responds to calls within the City of St. Augustine – including the Olde Town Historic District. About one-third of its firefighters are certified paramedics today.
“I had heard of the program initially through someone in Putnam County, then again from deputy chief Stephanie Whaley at St. Johns County Fire Rescue,” said Chris Pacetti, the deputy chief at the St. Augustine Fire Department. “She gave me a lot of information about how they had worked with CareerSource in the past and what a great partnership it was.”
In October 2021, Pacetti reached out to CareerSource NEFL Healthcare Sector Manager Carol Cullen, who worked with him to secure training for two of the fire department’s Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) – Paul Hopkins and Hannah Riederich to become paramedics.
“Paul and Hannah were interested in going to paramedic school, and that’s when I remembered CareerSource NEFL,” he said. “When people get hired with us, they come in as EMTs/Firefighters, but if they want to advance their education and their careers, we’ll help them get into the classes however we can. With the funding through CareerSource NEFL, we were able to get them into classes at First Coast Technical College.”
They began attending classes from January through December 2022, and both were certified as paramedics in January.
Riederich, who grew up in St. Augustine and attended Seminole Community College in Orlando, finished fire school, and she joined the department in February 2021.
“It’s kind of hard on a firefighter’s salary to go to school because it takes a lot of money,” she said. “That’s when Paul and I asked if there were any grants or options for the city to pay for it. That’s when Chris did some digging and came up with CareerSource Northeast Florida, so we were definitely aware of where the help was coming from.”
While she already had an EMT license, as is required for all firefighters, Riederich says with the certification, she feels more confident in her abilities when they respond to an emergency.
“I’d say about 95 percent of our job somehow relates to a medical issue on a call,” she said. “What I’ve noticed is that now that we go on calls, our EMTs are a lot more susceptible and appreciative of the information we give them…they don’t have to backtrack, and they trust in us and our ability. Not only does it help me be better at my job, but what it’s helping is the people that are coming to the rescue…helping get things done quicker when time is of the essence, which of course, helps those we’re administering help to on the scene.”
Hopkins, a native of England who came to America to attend college 20 years ago, spent time owning a personal training business, did some extensive travel, then took a corporate job for four years before making a “late career change” and joined the department in 2019.
He relates becoming a paramedic akin to “opening Pandora’s Box.”
“You go from not being able to do too much on the scene to offering a wider range of skills you couldn’t do before,” he said.
Some of these include performing a cricothyrotomy (a procedure that involves placing a tube through an incision to establish an airway for oxygen), chest decompressions, needle decompressions to relieve pressure on the chest, start IVs (administering a drug or other substance through a needle or tube inserted into a vein) and administer other drugs on the scene.
“It just gives us a lot more ways to save people,” Hopkins said.
Pacetti concurs that many of their calls tend to have a lot of medical types of emergencies, whether it is pulling someone out of a fire, out of a car after an accident, or even responding to someone going through a cardiac arrest on the street.
“Paul and Hannah were able to learn some enhanced medical skills that in turn enhance our response abilities…and it also led to a pay raise for each of them since the department offers an incentive for certified paramedics,” he said. “For the program they went through, they would have had to pay for it themselves or have to wait until we could budget for it in future years.”
Pacetti is currently in discussions with CareerSource NEFL about potential funding for an advanced firefighting course.
“It was a great partnership,” Pacetti said. “Everything went pretty smooth, and we’re looking forward to partnering up with CareerSource in the future.”