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Woodbury police chief says city needs more paramedics

The problem, Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague said, is that Woodbury has a shortage of paramedics. The solution means a long-term commitment by the Woodbury City Council.

At a city council workshop Aug. 19, Vague explained the city’s need for more paramedics, and the events that led to this predicament in the first place, in hopes of helping council members understand why as many as 11 new paramedics should be added to the public safety staff over the next few years.

Woodbury’s public safety model is different than other communities, in that Woodbury staff have created a model in which some members hold dual roles in the department — police officer/firefighter, or police officer/paramedic. Firefighters are also trained as emergency medical technicians. The model has worked well since it started in 2006, Vague said, but these days, it needs some attention.

Woodbury’s population was about 11,000 fewer residents than it is at now. When the cross-training of personnel began, Woodbury had 12 officers who were trained as paramedics. As police officers were added, and the number of calls for emergency medical services increased, the number of paramedics on staff likewise increased. By 2011, Woodbury’s police officer/paramedic staff was at an all time high of 20 members.

But then the recession came, and hiring stopped for a while. Then new positions with new roles — K-9 units, school resource officers, and investigators to pursue complex crimes or crimes that involve technology — had to be created. Some of the police officer/paramedic members applied for those positions and moved on in their careers. 

“We are dealing with things that we didn’t deal with in 2004, when we were a smaller city,” Vague told city council members.

Over time, Vague said, the number of police officers who are also trained as paramedics has dropped to a total of 13 this year. And once the school year starts, that number drops to a total of nine. Two full-time paramedics have been hired, which brings the available staff to 15 now, and 11 after the school year starts. 

But the city is growing, and aging. Woodbury also has more senior living complexes and hospital and medical facilities than it did years ago. As such, the number of calls for paramedics is rising steadily. 

Over the past year, Woodbury’s public safety team has looked at options like contracting ambulance service to an outside agency or transitioning to a full-time fire department that would handle all EMS calls, or merging EMS and fire services with neighboring agencies. But some of those options could mean more cost in the long run, and longer response times in the immediate future. 

And that is why Vague is looking for support to hire new paramedics.

“This is an amazing service that we have. I don’t say this just to pump us up,” he said. “We really don’t want to mess this up, but we have to be more sustainable.”

Solving the problem

Past practice has been to hire police officers, then train them to become paramedics. But that process holds Woodbury back in a way, because officers are not trained to become paramedics until after they have been police officers for three years. And then, the training to be a paramedic takes another 18 months. For instance, there are 10 new officers who are in their first three years on staff, who cannot be scheduled for paramedic duty at this time. 

Another nine police officers are trained as firefighters, and therefore cannot be trained as paramedics, under Woodbury’s model. At no time have any of the public safety staff held all three EMS positions, Vague said. Eight police officers are police sergeant, seven are assigned to other units, six are detectives, five are part of the command staff. The remaining 11 are either on leave of absence, have already been in the cross-training role, are being hired, or, in one case, are exempt from the medic post. 

Instead, Vague is asking the Woodbury City Council to allow him to hire as many as 11 new paramedics, who will eventually be trained as police officers, over the next five years. He would like to have the first two hired yet in 2015, with money already available in this year’s budget, but he needs the commitment that the funding for those two will be in the 2016 budget and beyond. 

Vague is also asking that two additional paramedic positions be added to the 2016 budget. With the request for this year, that means planning funds for a total of four paramedics as part of next year’s budget.

That would mean, for 2016, a commitment of $390,319 for the four paramedics proposed by Vague last week. 

By 2020, Vague hopes to have a slate of 84 police officer/medics and full-time paramedics. which would mean an average of 1.159 officers or paramedics on staff for every 1,000 residents. The average in Minnesota cities of Woodbury’s size is 1.15 per 1,000 population.

Though no budget decisions were made during the workshop, Councilmember Amy Scoggins said public safety is one area where she is willing to set money aside.

“To me, this is one of the most important things we spend money on, and if you ask anybody what’s most important, they’ll probably say the same,” she said. 

The Woodbury City Council will review the 2016 proposed budget and tax levy at its Sept. 16 budget workshop. The workshop begins at 4 p.m. at Woodbury City Hall.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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