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Setting a California standard for EMT certification in fire departments

Setting a California standard for EMT certification in fire departments
State Sen. Isadore Hall III talks with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon in Sacramentoin June. Hall says he's working with CalFireon a newrequirement that all California firefighters maintain current EMT certification. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

An L.A. Times investigation published in March revealed that a quarter of Compton firefighters aren't certified as emergency medical technicians. This prompted the county to strip most of Compton's firetrucks of automated external defibrillators, a device than can mean the difference between life and death for someone in cardiac arrest.

It was bad news for residents of Compton, but the revelation may lead to positive change. The fire chief who allowed the lapse was forced out in July, and interim Chief Bryan Batiste said he'll make sure all of his 74 firefighters are trained and certified as EMTs. That's a sensible response. But it is a policy choice, not a legal requirement, and that makes no sense.

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Thanks to modern improvements in building codes and fire prevention, fighting fires accounts for a small fraction of the work of modern city fire departments. In fact, it's an open question whether they should continue to be called fire departments, because they've evolved into emergency medical service providers that sometimes fight fires. About 85% of calls to fire departments in California are for emergency medical service. The number is even higher in Los Angeles, nearly 90%.

However, the law hasn't followed the trend. There's no statewide requirement that firefighters have emergency medical training, other than CPR and some first aid. As the Compton case illustrates, that's a public health hazard and it ought to change.

Most of California's more than 900 fire departments require that their firefighters are, at the very least, certified as EMTs, which entails about 160 hours of training and on-the-job experience. That includes the Los Angeles Fire Department and all other large departments in the county, except Compton's.

In fact, EMT training is the industry standard. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to get hired at a fire department today without it. Still, it's only a practice. And there's no easy way for a member of the public to tell whether a local fire department requires emergency medical training for its first responders. Not until something bad happens.

In March, state Sen. Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) promised legislation to require all California firefighters to maintain current EMT certification. But he's since backed away from a bill because of the potential cost to the state if it mandates certification. Instead, Hall says he's working to achieve the same goal through a policy change at CalFire, which oversees firefighter training.

If that works to create a statewide standard, fine. Californians shouldn't have to wonder whether the people responding to their emergency medical calls are properly trained and certified to render the lifesaving care they need.

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