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Life as fire/EMT intern: Zero to 60 in an instant

  • Article by: NEIL JOHNSON
  • The Janesville Gazette
  • July 20, 2013 - 12:05 AM

MILTON, Wis. — Milton Firefighter and EMT intern Heather Tollefson was tending to her daily marching orders on a quiet Friday morning.

Tollefson, 25, planned to write a report on an earlier emergency ambulance call, check the fire trucks' firefighter air tanks and generators and head out for a set of pre-fire readiness checks at a half-dozen downtown Milton businesses.

Then, things got interesting.

At 10:27 a.m., the firehouse's radios lit up with a report of a man stung by a hornet outside his home a few blocks away. The man was having an allergic reaction to the sting.

"I've gotta go," Tollefson said, bounding off toward a fire department ambulance already idling in the firehouse garage.

Tollefson's blond, braided ponytail bounced against her black Milton Fire Department T-shirt as she leapt into the back of the ambulance.

In a span of 10 seconds, Tollefson's day had changed. Off she raced to an emergency.

For Tollefson, it was like any other day for a working intern at a small fire department, The Janesville Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/18lfdiI). An intern can handle many kinds of tasks, some as mundane as cleaning a fire station restroom or filling oxygen tanks.

Other duties, such as writing reports or helping on calls as an ambulance or fire truck "ride along," are crucial for a fire department trainee to gain hands-on work experience.

All the work gets logged in some way as part of a matrix of hundreds of training hours that a firefighter/emergency medical technician needs to complete as a full, on-call member of a fire department.

Tollefson already is certified as a base-level Emergency Medical Technician, known as an EMT-basic, but she is in the middle of a two-year program of coursework at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville to earn certification as an advanced paramedic and a firefighter.

A former restaurant supervisor who has a young daughter and is engaged to be married, Tollefson, a rural Milton resident, said she has always dreamed of being a full-time firefighter/paramedic. She said her fiancé, Eric Sympson of Edgerton, pressed her to follow her dreams.

On Friday, it just happened to be Tollefson's first call to a serious insect sting.

Lt. Aaron Reed, 24, a five-year veteran on the Milton Fire Department, said as an intern, Tollefson could get thrown into any emergency situation at any time.

"When you're training for this work, you get thrown right into real life. It's an eye-opener. It's not you and your buddies sitting around in class or a college cafeteria.

"Today, Heather asked if she could ride along on ambulance calls, and I said sure," Reed said. "So there you go. Bee sting."

Although other area departments have internship programs, Tollefson is the Milton Fire Department's first firefighter intern.

She has been at the 40-member volunteer fire department for about nine months during her schooling at Blackhawk Tech. She has about another semester and a half at BTC. She works 36 hours a week on call at the department.

The intern program is a new line this year in the fire department's budget, which is funded jointly by taxpayers from the city of Milton and the town of Milton.

Milton Fire Chief Loren Lippincott said having Tollefson as an intern bolsters the ranks of Milton's fire department and helps Tollefson meet her education and training requirements. The department's association also reimburses some of Tollefson's school costs.

"The internship program is a small expense to us as a department, but it's great for both us and Heather," Lippincott said. "She's getting great experience that she needs to advance her career here at Milton or another department. And it's at less of cost to us than a part-time member."

According to department records, about 20 percent of the Milton Fire Department's 40 or so permanent, on-call firefighter/EMTs have been on the department two years or less. And, Reed said, more than half of the department's members are under 35.

Many, he said, work full-time jobs outside the department_some as private EMTs. Others work in fields unrelated to public safety.

Regardless of education or experiences, the Milton Fire Department requires every firefighter to have at least 100 hours of training to meet department criteria, which range from fire response to water and ice rescue on Lake Koshkonong.

If firefighters also are EMTs_and most, such as Tollefson, are_the department requires those members-in-training to gather ambulance emergency skills along with training hours before they can graduate beyond "ridealong" status.

For instance, Lippincott said, on Tollefson's hornet-sting call, she earned EMT training credits and department credit for assisting the man stung and also communicating with staff at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville, where the man was taken for treatment.

New members including interns have tough tests to get through, and they do it in real time, Reed said.

"Everybody, whether they're a chief or someone in training, has to go to their first fire sometime. Just because you're an intern doesn't mean you sit in the firehouse and wait until you've got experience. Heather understands she's like anybody else here. She's part of the department. She's got to be ready to go whenever," he said.

Although Milton is a fairly small city, it and its surrounding area see the fourth-highest fire-emergency call volume in Rock County.

The city also has a soon-to-be finished four-lane bypass and four manufacturers whose work involves production with natural gas, plastics and ethanol, which Reed called "targeted production facilities" with potentially volatile substances that require dozens more hours a year of special training.

"Milton is changing a lot from a public-safety perspective. It's not as sleepy as you'd think. Everything about it is dynamic," Reed said.

Tollefson referred to the third call of her shift, the one involving the man with the hornet sting, as "laid back, but a pretty good call."

She would be busy for the rest of her day catching up on reports, cleaning up and checking in the ambulance the department used on the hornet sting call, and doing pre-fire checks at businesses. That is, if she didn't have to go out on another call.

"I'm as happy as I could be," Tollefson said. "I love this work."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette

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