GFC MSU helps fill demand for paramedics
Great Falls College MSU paramedic students practice a simulated scenario in the college’s simulated hospital.
By Erin Granger
GFC MSU News Service
GREAT FALLS – Marsha Marie Zibell was looking into going to school to become a nurse.
She had already made plans to live in a dorm room and leave her three young kids in Lewistown.
"I was a little distraught about that," Zibell said.
Then she heard about Great Falls College MSU's new distance paramedic program.
"I've been working as an EMT for the last six years," Zibell said.
The paramedic program was a perfect fit for her. It allows her to advance her career, while being able to stay in her hometown of Lewistown.
Zibell does have to come to Great Falls once a week for hands-on skills lessons. There are three students in the program from Lewistown, and they typically all carpool for the weekly trips to Great Falls.
"Great Falls is a pretty easy drive for us," Zibell said. "We all received a scholarship to cover our travel expenses and that was extremely helpful."
Zibell will graduate this spring and looks forward to working as a paramedic in Lewistown.
Lewiston hasn't always employed paramedics. Just recently, the ambulance crew there was made up only of EMTs, an emergency responder who has less training than a paramedic. Like many other small communities, Lewistown is moving toward having more paramedics on staff.
"The emergency medical system demand is increasing and evolving," said Joel Henderson, Emergency Medical Services Program Director at Great Falls College MSU.
Paramedics and EMTs are in high demand in Great Falls and across northcentral Montana. However the demand is evolving, with paramedics now being employed in emergency departments and intensive care units, and in small towns that previously didn't have paramedics.
Great Falls College MSU recently began offering its paramedic program via distance education to help meet the demand for more paramedics in rural communities, as well as in larger Montana cities.
Zibell is one of three students in Lewistown who is completing the program during its pilot year.
Distance students watch lectures via video conference.
"They log in at the same time as our normally scheduled lecture so they can ask questions and interact," Henderson said.
Distance students are required to come to Great Falls once a week for skills labs.
The distance program is only open to students who are already working as an EMT on an advanced life support crew. That can include EMTs working for the ambulance company or fire department in Great Falls. Being able to attend lectures via video conference makes it easier to schedule around their work shifts.
For distance students, all their clinicals and internships can be done in their home communities.
"Having them drive to Great Falls every day would be a hardship," Henderson said. "Cutting down the drive time is huge."
A few years ago, a couple students from Glacier County went through the GFC MSU paramedic program and did commute to Great Falls every day.
"They figured they lapped the world twice with coming back and forth for lecture and lab," Henderson said.
For Zibell, part of the appeal of the paramedic program was that she knew she would be in high demand after she graduates.
"There's a huge need for paramedics throughout Montana," she said.
Paramedics can offer more advanced care than EMTs. Paramedics can give advanced cardiac life support and also administer medications in the field, while EMTs offer basic life support.
Working as an EMT, Zibell has a first-hand understanding of how important paramedics can be in rural Montana.
"There is only so much you can do as an EMT," she said. "In such a rural setting, you go 50 miles to a wreck and you're 200 miles from the nearest trauma facility. There are things paramedics can do to help save lives."
The paramedic program at GFC MSU is a two-year degree. It requires students to complete 66 credits. The EMT program is much shorter – only four months and seven credits. All paramedic students must first complete the EMT program.
"In order to be eligible to be a paramedic, students need to be an EMT first," Henderson said.
Other small communities have begun hiring paramedics as well. Conrad and Cut Bank also employ paramedics.
"The supply of paramedics has increased and allowed more and more communities to have paramedics available for their residents," Henderson said. "We're starting to see more and more communities move beyond an EMT level to a paramedic level."
Cut Bank is even using community paramedics who make house calls and can do follow-up appointments after a patient is released from the hospital.
Up until recently, paramedics in Great Falls were employed by the ambulance provider, the fire department and Mercy Flight. In the last few years, paramedics' roles have been growing and changing.
"Locally we now have two ERs, and both employ paramedics," Henderson said.
Benefis has recently begun staffing paramedics in its Intensive Care Unit.
Paramedics offer a very different skill set than nurses. They are trained to respond to acute emergencies.
"Nursing is more long-term care focused, while EMS is more of an emergent short-term perspective on taking care of patients," Henderson said.
That makes paramedics a good fit in the ER or ICU, where they respond to patient emergencies.
It wasn't long ago that paramedics were first introduced into the Great Falls market.
"Great Falls didn't see paramedics arrive until the early to middle part of the 1990s," Henderson said.
Before that, the highest level of emergency responder was an EMT.
"The first paramedic courses in the state were started around that time as well," Henderson said.
The first paramedic courses were taught at ambulance and fire stations.
"Access to the career field was limited by that fact," Henderson said.
In the late '90s, Great Falls College MSU began offering a paramedic program.
"That really opened up the access to become a paramedic," Henderson said.
It wasn't long after the program started that Henderson completed the program. He became an EMT in 2000 and graduated from GFC MSU as a paramedic in 2002.
The son of a firefighter, Henderson's original goal in becoming at EMT was to land a job at Great Falls Fire Rescue. He went into the EMT program with some hesitation, thinking he didn't want to be the one responding to someone's medical emergency.
"I discovered I really liked the medical side of emergency services," Henderson said.
He found he was so passionate about it that he wanted to teach others to become EMTs and paramedics.
In 2004, he became an instructor in the paramedic program and then became director in 2009. He has served in that position since then.
In addition to teaching fulltime, Henderson still works as a paramedic for Great Falls Emergency Services and for Glacier County.
He does it to keep his skills sharp and to maintain his competency, but he also does it because he enjoys the work.
"I'm still very passionate about EMS," he said. "I like working in the field."
Working as a paramedic means that Henderson faces a different challenge every day he's on the job.
"You never know what you're going to get," he said. "It's challenging each and every time you show up to work. It's something you can never master."
Being a paramedic requires an extensive understanding of the human body and also strong interpersonal communication skills.
"You have to have a diverse skill set and be able to think on your feet," Henderson said.
While his career is exciting and challenging, it's also incredibly rewarding.
"There's no better high than to help somebody and to save somebody's life," he said. "It's very internally rewarding."
Applications for the paramedic program at Great Falls College MSU are due May 25. The EMT program offers open enrollment with no required pre-requisites. Admissions applications for fall classes are due Aug. 22.
For more information, call:
406-268-3700 or visit admissions.gfcmsu.edu.
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