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Paramedics ready to answer the call

Jeremiah Ballou, new operations chief Luke Carpenter and David Bailey stand ready for any emergency at the Madison Avenue fire station. - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Jeremiah Ballou, new operations chief Luke Carpenter and David Bailey stand ready for any emergency at the Madison Avenue fire station.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

Not that the program offers much time for reflection.

But roaring down Seattle’s Aurora Avenue in the back of an ambulance, doing 80 mph with the life of a patient hanging in the balance – at that moment, Jeremiah Ballou admits, a paramedic trainee can wonder what he’s gotten himself into.

“It was,” Ballou said of his training experience, “definitely ‘a year.’”

He and David Bailey now hold distinction as the island’s first-ever in-house paramedics – and home grown ones at that.

The BHS graduates – classes of 1993 and 1995, respectively – have returned to duty at the Bainbridge Island Fire Department, having completed a grueling, 3,000-hour regimen of advanced life-support training through Harborview Medical Center.

Fire officials say their commission represents a significant step forward for the department, which has used Seattle paramedics on contract for the past 15 years.

“This is a huge milestone, there’s no doubt,” Bainbridge Fire Chief Jim Walkowski said.

Bailey, whose father Ron was a fire volunteer, essentially grew up in the Bainbridge department.

He and Ballou got their formal start in fire service as high schoolers through the department’s cadet program.

They spent their free hours working at the department, cleaning the fire hall, riding along on emergency calls, and offering support at fire scenes, albeit outside the bounds of danger.

“You find out what the fire service is all about,” Bailey said.

Said Ballou: “Once you’re in, it’s like a vortex – you can’t get out.”

Both trained as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and served as volunteers on Bainbridge and with other departments.

When fire officials decided several years ago to develop an in-house paramedic service, Bailey and Ballou tested highest in the department among a field of eight applicants.

Last fall, after several months training at the state fire academy, they set off for Harborview.

The regimen there is well removed from the “basic” life support offered by EMTs; paramedics receive more emergency room training, learn to perform invasive medical procedures, and are trained to dispense drugs.

And if you suffer a heart attack, lose a limb in an accident or are shot down in the street, the Seattle area seems to be the place you want it happen; metropolitan Seattle is reported to have the highest life-saving rate among the nation’s largest cities.

That’s attributed largely to the success of the Harborview paramedic training into which the islander firefighters matriculated.

The program – which Ballou describes as “complete immersion” – treats trainees as third-year medical students, working with the top 1 percent of the class.

Intense, day-long classroom hours are supplemented by shifts in the field with real paramedic teams, helping with patient evaluations and working side by side with doctors and other professionals in ER situations.

And given Seattle’s urban environment, a shift could be chaotic.

“Everything you read in the Seattle’s papers – shootings in Rainier Valley, stabbings in Pioneer Square – these guys went to it,” said Luke Carpenter, operations chief for the department.

Said Ballou: “Generally, it’s the worst of everything. You don’t see anybody in their happy times. You see them in their depressing times.”

At a life-saving scene, it’s the paramedics who run the show. And the trainees quickly progressed from onlookers to the ones performing evaluations, while the regular paramedics stood back and monitored their efforts.

The hands-on experience left no room for error, but that’s what the program demands.

“We’re not extremely book-smart, but we see things and we know how to take care of them,” Ballou said.

With their recent certification, they rejoin the department as firefighter/paramedics, meaning they’ll be responding to whatever emergencies come their way.

They will continue to work side by side with contract paramedics through the end of this year, then will take over as the ones others look to for guidance on the scene. A third paramedic will be hired sometime in the future.

“They’re the better for (the training),” Walkowski said.

“They came out better individuals than they were when they started, and now they bring that back to the island.”

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