Missouri Fire Department Charged With Inadequately Training First Responders

LAKE OF THE OZARKS - An official with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has told the Northwest Fire Protection District that it must get a new medical director, that it has conducted invalid emergency medical training and steps need to be taken to protect the district while certification issues are resolved.

This information was aired publicly at a board meeting last week where a number of district residents said they want a new fire chief and a new board of directors.

Greg Natsch, Missouri Emergency Medical Services Training and Education Coordinator for HSS, says his office is very concerned about the absence of a medical director and the district not being authorized to conduct first responder training.

First responder class-ification denotes those who have received training that allows them to provide initial first aid to accident victims. First responders are typically firefighters.

"Under state law certain entities are required to have a medical director and Northwest fire falls into that category," Natsch said at the board meeting. "And after 1995 the state stopped certifying individual first responders. Agencies now are accredited by our office to conduct basic Emergency Medical Technician training, EMT training for paramedics, continuing education, first responders and emergency medical dispatch."

Natsch explained that Northwest Fire is not far from meeting the necessary requirements for becoming a certified training entity. He made several suggestions at what he called "band-aid" measures to protect the district until certain legal requirements are met.

First, he said, the district is not a recognized training entity and the certificates issued were not valid. The district has to stop all training classes and those who were certified by the district will have to take a refresher skills course and be retested by a certified training agency. It is not yet known if there will be a charge for the refresher classes or the testing.

"I am familiar with the lake area and the agencies which are training entities and will select one that would work best to get these first responders into refresher classes so they can be retested," Natsch said. "My office, not the district's board of directors or fire chief, will be responsible for calling all of the first responders on the district's roster to alert them of the changes and what they will need to do."

Those who completed or were in the midst of the six-month training for first responder certification in the district will have to take the course over.

In order to protect themselves on medical calls without the advice of a medical director, Natsch suggested that those who respond to medical calls in the district get approval from a physician at Lake Regional Health System.

"These measures offer a temporary patch to a very serious problem," Natsch said. "It is the path of least resistance to make sure there is not lapse in service while the district works out a solution."

Natsch's office is looking into alleged irregularities related to first responder training in the district.

According to court records, Sherry Hutchins of Roach became the district's medical director in 1991. She had her medical license suspended by the state on March 18, 2003 and revoked on July 24, 2003.

At least two of the district's first responder certifications were stamped with the signatures of Hutchins and Fire Chief Terry Walker assistant chief Chris Krise and district board member Jennifer Walker after Hutchins had been suspended by the state and less than two weeks before her license was revoked.

As far as the legality of training and the medical director, Natsch said his legal staff is reviewing the case. He said it is unlikely that any serious action will be taken by their office against the district unless the district fails to make necessary changes to come into compliance with state law.

By state statute investigations conducted by the Missouri Emergency Medical Services Training and Education office must be completed within six months. The findings are considered public record.

The training issue was addressed by district residents at the meeting.

"You won't answer our questions and have repeatedly snubbed your noses at the people who elected you into office," district resident Terri Townsend told the board. "You have put this district in a very bad position by opening us up to potential civil lawsuits and violations of state law. If you won't answer to or look out for the safety of the people you are sworn to serve then it is time that you go."

Walker said he had no idea the district lacked a medical director. Several board members said they were under the impression that Dr. James Jungles was their medical director.

"I must have received bad information because I was told by my instructor that we had a medical director," Walker said. "I thought that was Dr. Jungles."

Mary Porter, a district resident and wife of a former district firefighter, asked why Walker would sign off as a trainer on certificates with the apparent approval of a suspended doctor.

Walker did not respond.

Townsend and Porter said district residents have waited for months to get the board to resolve a host of problems that have plagued their service.

"We don't have any faith that they will do what they are supposed to do or what they promise," Porter said. "For months the board has said it would try and work out problems between the fire chief and the firefighters who walked away from fire station four but that has never happened."

Residents served by that area also voiced concerns that the district was going to use fire district funds to build a $90,000 training facility that will temporarily house Camden County Ambulance personnel.

"The ambulance district doesn't serve the people who pay the majority of taxes in the district," Townsend said.

Board Chairman Gary Jones said the structure is being built on the premise the district will eventually use it for its own training purposes. Townsend suggested the district hold off on its plans to build until the district can achieve its status of a training agency. Jones disagreed. "We made the decision to do this a long time ago," Jones said. "We're moving forward."