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High school pilot program trains future First Responders

Despite the frigid cold and blistering wind on Nov. 10, the EMR class poses for a group photo with the North Memorial Health flight crew. (Photos by Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)1 / 3
EMR Instructor Jason "Bucky" Johnson leads a question-and-answer session with the flight crew.2 / 3
Paramedic Linda Roberts showed the tight quarters within the helicopter.3 / 3

North Country EMS Education and the Park Rapids School District are collaborating to offer an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) course, also known as First Responders, to high school students.

Based in Bemidji, North Country EMS Education offers a number of classes, like First Aid, CPR, EMR and emergency medical technician (EMT) classes, explained owner Tom Johnson.

"One thing that is really lacking in youth these days, in my opinion, is volunteerism. We have a very active First Responder group here in Park Rapids. We're always looking for more help. And the EMS industry is kind of in a hole. Staffing is a problem. Everybody's short-handed," he said.

Last year, he approached High School Principal Jeff Johnson about offering a semester-long EMR class.

"We saw a great opportunity and thought it was a pretty good idea," he continued. "This is an attempt to do a lot of things: Get a unique program into the school. This program is going to help community volunteerism, help get some responders, and hopefully, pique the interests of some kids to continue on to an EMT class. So we're really excited."

His company is not affiliated with North Memorial Health, but they all work there.

"Most of our crew are Hubbard First Response people," added Johnson.

The EMR class help students develop emergency medical skills and knowledge that will enable them to assist people who have sustained an accidental injury, are suffering from a sudden illness or are experiencing a medical problem. This includes basic life support assessment and management techniques for patients experiencing airway, breathing and circulatory emergencies.

Jason "Buck" Johnson and Terry Long are co-instructors for the Park Rapids course. Both are Hubbard First Responders.

"There's not enough money in the world to pay these guys for what they're doing. They're doing it out of the goodness of their heart," Tom Johnson said.

Meeting the lifeflight crew

Last Friday, a North Memorial Health Air Care crew from Bemidji landed on the high school softball fields for a "show-and-tell."

North Memorial owns and operates eight Agusta 109 helicopters, the fastest civilian helicopter on the market. It has bases in Bemidji, Brainerd, Lakeville, Princeton, Redwood Falls and Siren, Wisc., making it possible to take 24/7 service calls throughout Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. A new base recently opened in Virginia, Minn.

"For us in the rural environments, especially with the critically injured or sick person, the most important things are the First Responders and our helicopters," Tom Johnson explained. "It's valuable for kids to see this and meet the flight crew."

The pilot program quickly attracted Park Rapids high school students, according to Buck Johnson. Twenty-two enrolled in the EMR course.

"It filled up like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

At the end of the semester, "if and when they pass, they'll be state-certified EMRs."

A First Responder shortage

Buck Johnson has served on the First Responders team for 20 years.

"There are multiple factors," he said of the EMR shortage.

"On the volunteer end, it's very hard to get someone to wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and run out because grandma fell down the stairs at 20 below and still get up and make it to their normal job and be able to function. It takes a special type of person to do that. Everyone wants to help their community, but to what extent?"

Last year, Hubbard First Responders received more than 600 requests for help.

"That's a lot to ask a person how many times you want to leave your job or work or sleep," he said.

"That's probably our biggest issue with Hubbard First Response," agreed Long. "We've got 20 responders and 600 calls."

First Responders use their own cars and gas, so "financially it's costing you to help others, and it takes a big heart to do it," Buck Johnson said. "And how many of us in here enjoy the sight of blood?"

On average, 50 percent of EMR class participants will drop out, Johnson continued.

Flight criteria

Flying at top speeds of about 200 miles per hour, North Memorial helicopters can transport patients from Park Rapids to Bemidji in 17 minutes, said pilot Pete Schultz, depending on the wind speeds. Fargo is a 30-minute flight; Minneapolis is 55 minutes.

Schultz has a military background, flying Apache helicopters. Today, he typically receives one to two medical calls per day.

He warned the First Responders-in-training to stay well away from the helicopter's rotating blades, which sink lower as they slow down.

Flight nurse Jessica Hansen urged students to "make the call" if they arrive at a scene and think a helicopter may be needed.

"Call any helicopter. Get them there," Hansen said. "If we have to turnaround in the sky, we don't care. We like to fly."

Health insurance companies are only billed for the patient leg of the flight, she added.

"As First Responders, a lot of times you're first on the scene. You'll be gathering the brunt of the information that we'll use when we get on scene," explained paramedic Linda Roberts. "The more information you get, the better our initial care is."