The Cottonwood Fire Department holds the distinction of having all 12 of its shift firefighters certified paramedics, except that one is still in school.
He will graduate from the program in March. That means that there are four paramedics on the fire engine whenever it goes out — 24/7.
“We are proud to say our existing engine is staffed with all paramedics. I don’t know of any other department or district in the state that has that,” Chief Mike Casson said. “We feel blessed.”
The reason for the high number of paramedics is two-fold. One is that the firefighters want to get the training and certification. The other is the trend for fire departments to perform emergency medical services in their communities more than fighting fires.
“Our services are shifting. With education in the schools and the community, smoke alarms, sprinklers, fire extinguishers and cell phone fires have decreased, but EMS has increased a great deal,” EMS coordinator Tim Wills said. He also is a shift captain with the department.
In 2008, about 74 percent to 75 percent of the department’s 2,478 calls were for EMS. Some were to assist other Verde Valley departments, but the majority were for Cottonwood.
The number of calls is increasing as well. According to Wills, the Cottonwood department is the busiest in the Verde Valley.
“The community has gotten much larger and is continuing to grow. So far we’ve been able to keep up with the demand, but we’d really like to put on a second engine, at least at our busiest time,” Wills said.
A second engine would be 12 more firefighters. With the number of paramedics on staff, even with a second engine it would mean there would be two paramedics on each engine, each shift.
“It’s also an advantage if there are multiple injuries, like when the five cheerleaders were hurt in the Sept. 6, 2007 collision on South Main Street,” Casson said.
He is amazed at the caliber of people in the department and their enthusiasm not only for their job, but to keep improving their knowledge and skills.
“We’ve always encouraged our people to get further education — paramedic or otherwise. It amazes me. The commitment to paramedic is huge. It’s about 1,300 hours, including clinicals,” Casson said.
The department recognizes that EMS delivery is what firefighters do these days, but they also have the commitment to fight fires when they do happen, Casson said as the tones went out for a house fire in Verde Village Unit 3. The call was for the Verde Valley Fire District, but Wills and his crew got ready to go, if they were called to assist.
Casson was at a state fire training committee meeting in Phoenix recently and said a lot of department chiefs said they were having trouble staffing paramedics.
“This community can be proud. It takes one and a half years to develop a paramedic; we already have them on staff now,” he said.
All paramedics are nationally and state certified. For the Cottonwood department, Dr. Todd Lane at Verde Valley Medical Center is their medical director. He helps develop protocols for when the paramedics work in the field or for any questions.
“Our focus is for pre-hospital events and management. We are a bridge to the hospital. Most times, though, we have to work under emergency conditions, and not always under the best of conditions,” Wills said.
The Cottonwood Fire Department is located at 199 S. Sixth St.