Cottage Grove Public Safety charts new direction for 911 responseCity changing its emergency response model
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
What was once a young emergency response model in Cottage Grove is beginning to show end-of-life signs.
For four decades the first person to respond to a Cottage Grove resident’s 911 emergency call often has been a police officer who is cross-trained as a paramedic. Then, within minutes, an ambulance crew arrives to continue treating the patient and in some cases provide hospital transport.
The police/paramedic model was unusual when it was adopted in the 1970s and worked well for the small community in the ensuing years, Cottage Grove Public Safety Director Craig Woolery said.
Now, public safety leaders are changing the model to have firefighter/paramedics be the primary 911 emergency responders and make it a secondary duty for police.
It’s a big change for the department that will affect staffing levels and the reliance on part-time paid emergency responders.
“It’s pretty significant,” Woolery said of the transition.
Ambulance calls up
The changes, part of a new five-year strategic plan for the Public Safety Department, are driven by a number of factors but two are key: a steady rise in the number of ambulance calls, and the increasing challenge of hiring and retaining police officers who do double duty as paramedics.
The growing number of 911 calls, while not unique to Cottage Grove, is putting new demands on the department.
Ambulance runs have more than doubled in just six years. There were 1,124 ambulance runs in 2007; it jumped to 2,347 last year, according to department data.
Officials say the increase is partly the result of an aging demographic, though the area’s population increase also is a contributor.
The continued aging of the south Washington County population and a desire by city officials to see more housing options for the elderly could lead to still higher call volumes in the future.
The growth in ambulance calls has put a growing burden on part-time emergency responders, many of whom sign up as a way to help their community but are increasingly discouraged by the sheer volume of calls, public safety leaders said.
Part-time firefighter/EMTs must be available at least 60 hours a month. Some of them responded to more than 300 medical calls last year.
“It gets to be a lot,” said Pete Koerner, a deputy public safety director and police captain.
The extra demands make the part-time assignment less attractive. Adding to the burden is the fact that the department could have up to 55 part-time emergency responders but right now only can fill about 40 spots on the roster.
“We can’t beat up our part-timers anymore,” Deputy Fire Chief Wes Halvorsen said. “It’s time for the next step.”
That next step includes adding full-time firefighter/paramedics to relieve the part-time staff.
The Cottage Grove City Council earlier this month approved hiring a full-time firefighter/paramedic and a second is expected to be hired in June. The increased cost is about $170,000, but that is expected to be offset by reductions in part-time emergency responders and other staffing changes. Beyond that, the department’s goal is to bring on an additional four firefighter/paramedics over the following four years. Those positions have not been approved, but council members recently expressed support for the public safety strategic plan.
The market for police officers also has been a driving force for the department’s changes.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to hire police officers who are already trained as paramedics or who are willing to complete that training and take on the dual role, Woolery said.
Then, once they are hired, police/paramedics have a lower retention rate because some decide they don’t want both duties so they leave for jobs in nursing or other medical fields. In the past 10 years, 60 percent of the public safety department’s staff turnover has been in police/paramedics.
Shifting primary emergency response duties onto firefighters will mean fewer police/paramedics over time. That will allow police to take on different assignments, such as patrolling parks and neighborhoods on bikes, and provide more consistent patrol staffing, Woolery said.
It also will create more flexibility within shift scheduling; currently, at least two police officers on each shift must also be paramedics.
Putting more of the emergency response responsibilities onto firefighter/paramedics also could allow the department to be even more selective in hiring police officers, Woolery said. It would not need to look for a candidate with paramedic training or interest.
The city has found other ways to handle increased call volume amid staffing challenges. Cottage Grove and Woodbury late last year agreed to help each other with emergency calls during the day. If one city has two ambulances out on calls and a third emergency is reported, the neighboring city’s crew will respond to that third call.
While public safety officials are changing the city’s emergency response staff, they said they have no plans to seek privatized ambulance service in south Washington County.
Cottage Grove has ownership of an emergency primary service area that includes Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport and Grey Cloud Island Township. That is set in state law. In other areas of the Twin Cities, emergency ambulance service is provided by medical providers such as Allina Health or HealthEast Care System.
The department funds some of its emergency response staffing with revenue from ambulance fees, which would be lost if it gave up the ambulance service. That could mean additional general fund expenses. Also, public safety officials said emergency response times may not be as good if another organization took over the ambulance calls.
For many residents, the Cottage Grove public safety changes will go unnoticed, with the exception that the first person to respond to a 911 emergency medical call may have a different uniform.
Emergency call response times should not change. Currently, it takes an average of 3 minutes for a police/paramedic to respond to a 911 call, and an ambulance crew typically arrives in six minutes.
The addition of full-time firefighters could help to shave some time off fire calls, said Cottage Grove Fire Chief Rick Redenius.
Public safety officials in recent years have tried a number of different staffing models to accommodate the growing emergency calls and challenges of relying so heavily on part-time staff, but until now there has not been a long-term plan for the department, Woolery said.
“What I’m glad about is we have a road map,” he said.