More Florida Firefighters Getting RN Degrees
Feb. 11--ST. PETERSBURG -- At 36, Tom Kras, a firefighter with St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue, has already had two knee surgeries. After the second surgery, he was on light duty for several months.
Kras wondered what would happen to him if he could no longer carry people down ladders or cut a car open to pull out an injured passenger.
That's when he decided to make himself more marketable and become a nurse.
"I knew I never wanted to leave the fire department at this age to be a nurse," said Kras. "It was more of a backup plan."
Kras is one of a small, but growing, number of firefighters who are juggling their already-bizarre schedules to become registered nurses. It's a shift happening in fire departments throughout the region.
Like Kras, many aren't going to nursing school to change careers. In fact, many look at the added training as a way to improve their performance as paramedics. Their nursing training also helps them act with their patients' longer-term needs in mind, rather than just patching them up well enough so they're still alive when they reach the hospital.
But nursing is a good option for firefighters who are too old to run calls anymore, and it's a better second job than what many firefighters do when they're not at the fire station -- jobs such as construction, landscaping, or air-conditioning repair, all of which can be nearly as hard on firefighters' knees and backs as responding to fires and car wrecks.
"It's an understanding I might not be able to lift these people up stairs in 15 years," said Allen Smay, 31, a firefighter and paramedic with Lealman Fire Rescue, who's in a nursing program at St. Petersburg College.
In Pinellas County, firefighters are increasingly worried about job security because local governments are always looking for ways to cut costs. Recently, for example, county officials decided they no longer want firefighters to respond to low-priority medical calls.
Even though the nursing bridge programs have been around awhile, they haven't attracted large numbers of students.
Pasco-Hernando Community College, where Kras received his nursing education, started its program in 1991, but enrollment dwindled to zero after a few years, said Jayme Rothberg, the school's dean of health occupations. In 2007 and 2008, the program was restructured so paramedics and licensed practical nurses were enrolled together. Even so, it's only offered every other year. In the last couple of years, 39 paramedics went through the program, with 38 graduating.
St. Petersburg College started a bridge program in 1990, according to Phillip Nicotera, provost at the college's Caruth Health Education Center. Paramedics are blended in with other students admitted to the nursing program, with 12 out of 192 slots reserved for them over the course of a year.
Since the spring term of 2007, 30 out of 32 nursing students who are paramedics graduated -- a nearly 94 percent success rate, Nicotera said.
There's no doubt a nursing degree expands a firefighter's options -- even in the world of emergency response.
One of Kras' colleagues, Kevin Dooley, 43, is able to work on his days off as a flight nurse on Bayflite, Bayfront Medical Center's rescue helicopter, because he is both a registered nurse and a paramedic. Every flight nurse on Bayflite needs paramedic training, Dooley said.
Financially, there isn't much of a difference between a nurse's salary and a firefighter's salary, firefighters say, especially if you consider the benefits and pensions firefighters receive.
"At this point, I can't say leaving the fire department to become a nurse would mean more money," Kras said. "It's close."
There are reasons, though, aside from money and health issues, that firefighters might consider switching careers.
"We both make about the same amount of money; but in the end, the paramedics [and] firefighters are spending more time away from their families, and the nurses are working fewer hours," said Smay.
For Steve Bailey, a firefighter with Largo Fire Rescue, becoming a nurse was about having more options. After seven years in Largo, where his dad was a career firefighter, Bailey has no plans to leave; but nursing brings in extra money now and will give him a second career after he retires from the fire department.
"It's just more security," said Bailey, who earned a nursing degree at PHCC last year and started working in the emergency room at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson about a month ago.
"As an RN, you can go many different routes."
Bailey would know: His mom was a registered nurse. So he's following in both his parents' footsteps.
Given the choice, most firefighters opt to stay with their agencies even after becoming nurses -- as long as their knees and backs hold up. They like the adrenalin that comes from working as a first responder and the heroic aspects of the job.
"When someone is knocking on death's door, the biggest difference can be made in the first 10 minutes," said Dooley, who became a firefighter after first training as a nurse. "Now that I'm on the street, I get that first 10 minutes."
But firefighters trained as nurses say they appreciate the added perspective nursing gives them.
As a paramedic, 26-year-old Robert Winer, a firefighter with the City of Clearwater, said he would routinely give patients suffering from heart failure an intravenous solution. He didn't learn, until nursing school, that giving a patient too much of the fluid might spur the heart to pump it back into the patient's lungs.
He also was so wary, as a paramedic, of administering paid medication to elderly patients that he often wouldn't unless he saw "a bone sticking out."
But nursing has made Winer, who also works in a stroke unit at Mease Dunedin Hospital, more comfortable making decisions about medication.
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