Students respond to class that teaches EMT training

Paramedics: A Baltimore County program helps teens learn medical treatment in a effort to recruit more blacks in the Fire Department.

February 26, 2005|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,SUN STAFF

On a recent frigid and wet evening at the Woodlawn Volunteer Fire Company, students from Woodlawn High School bundled up and happily shoveled the snow from the front of the station.

Then the alarm sounded. Wesley Watson, a 17-year-old junior, raced into the firehouse and hopped aboard an ambulance with two of the department's paramedics. They raced -- sirens blaring and lights flashing -- to a car accident on Dogwood Road, where Watson helped take an injured person's vital signs.

Watson and the other students are enrolled in a new Emergency Medical Services and Fire Rescue class at Woodlawn High. Offered elsewhere in the county since 1996, the class was introduced at Woodlawn in late fall, though a shaky start meant the students were without supplies and a regular teacher until last month.

But school and Baltimore County fire officials are working to get the program on track. It's important, they say, not just for the students, but also for a department that is trying to recruit more emergency medical workers and attract more blacks to the department.

"We do want a fire department that represents the community," said Capt. Glenn A. Blackwell of the Fire Rescue Academy.

The Woodlawn class meets at the high school from 11:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. five days a week. Students learn CPR and how to take vital signs and administer medical treatment -- the skills they will be tested on to be certified as emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, when the class is done.

Watson is hoping for a career in the department -- one that will take him to captain or even chief.

As part of the class, the 16 students must join the Woodlawn department. After completing a checklist of such skills as learning to operate a stretcher, fill oxygen bottles and take inventory of the ambulance, students are eligible to go on ride-alongs with the medical personnel. After passing tests, the students are allowed to take vital signs and help out on the calls.

"There's a huge difference between working on a mannequin and working on a real human," said EMS Lt. Philip DePalo, who works with the students.

Not all the students are interested in joining the Fire Department. For many, the class, and the resulting certification, is a first step to other medical careers.

"I've always wanted to be a doctor," said 16-year-old Charleen Allen. "I'm doing this to get experience."

That's OK with school officials, who see the class as valuable career training.

"These are transferable health skills. It's another way for students, especially on the west side of the county, to get allied health skills," said Rhonda Hoyman, technical programs supervisor for Baltimore County Schools.

The Fire Department doesn't keep track of how many students have gone through the program, which has been offered at various locations for the past nine years, most recently at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk. Battalion Chief Michael Robinson of the Baltimore County Fire Rescue Academy estimated the number at 200 and guessed that about a dozen are employed with or members of a county fire department.

Many involved in the Woodlawn program agree there was some difficulty in getting that class off the ground.

"The school system asked us to start a program at Woodlawn, and we liked that idea for recruitment purposes," said Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for the department.

She acknowledges the program has had some challenges. The class didn't get started until after the school year began, and it wasn't until last month that a permanent instructor was found.

Louis Dixon Jr., the president of Guardian Knights, a black firefighters association, said the program at Woodlawn should have been better organized. With the class's late start, the lack of a regular instructor and what he says is an inferior facility compared with the Sollers Point program, the Woodlawn class so far has been "a disparity and an injustice," he said.

"It's a predominantly black school, and the EMS division in Woodlawn could use that kind of manpower," Dixon said. "Fortunately things have gotten better, but I feel like the children were shortchanged in a lot of ways."

About 11 percent of the county's firefighters, paramedics and EMTS are black, according to department figures. The county's population is about 20 percent black, according to the 2000 census.

Hoyman said plans are in place to improve the program. The class is held in a former band room, but next year it will also occupy the classroom next door, which will be modeled like the interior of an ambulance, Hoyman said. Next year, Woodlawn will be the only high school offering the class, though it will be open to county students.

For Watson, who already has been out on 30 calls, more than any other student, the time spent without a permanent instructor was frustrating, but it was worth waiting out.

"Everything is flowing now," he said, as he left to inventory the ambulance in anticipation of the next call.

Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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