Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Compton Fire Dept. flap is embarrassing

Compton Fire Chief Jon Thompson undoubtedly means to keep his pledge “that it’ll never happen again.”

The “it” is the recent bombshell revelation that nearly one out of four Compton firefighters do not have a valid emergency medical technician (EMT) certificate.

The revelation was beyond an embarrassment for the department. It posed the potential danger of putting lives at risk. The equally large questions for Compton city and fire officials is, how did it happen in the first place, and what guarantee do Compton residents have that it won’t happen again?

An EMT certificate is the most basic of basic requirements that any applicant to a fire department must have. The reason is obvious.

Firefighters spend the bulk of their time not chasing down and putting out three and four alarm fires, but rushing to scenes to provide emergency first aid and medical care to injured and the critically ill. They are literally the front line, or in their parlance, first responders to emergency health needs.

Their role as health care providers is even more critical in poor, badly underserved minority communities where the health needs are greatest, private health care and treatment is often way beyond the means of residents, and public services are grossly inadequate.

The thought that an untrained emergency first responder would be permitted to render emergency medical treatment is both unconscionable and scary.

How scary? A study on the crucial importance of CPR training found that those who are properly trained to administer CPR are more likely to perform the techniques correctly and thus save lives than those who have minimal to no training. The survey also found that those who were trained within the last five years were almost twice as likely to say they’d begin CPR immediately in a real emergency as those not trained or not trained in the past five years.

The lack of a current EMT certificate for firefighters is even more inexcusable since the requirements to certify and recertify can hardly be considered onerous. The rule states that a paramedic license must be renewed every two years and a license renewal notice is sent out four months before a license expires.

A paramedic is required to complete a minimum of 48 hours for the certification. Not one of the more than a dozen other cities in Southern California with fire departments that were surveyed would dare allow one of their department’s firefighters to treat any injured or ill party in an emergency situation without an EMT certificate.

Compton fire officials now require that all new hires have an EMT certificate. They say that they will push to ensure that a current certificate is a mandatory requirement for all of its personnel. But what about their firefighters who currently do not have a valid EMT certificate?

A clear statement should be issued that reassures the public that those employees without a valid certificate will not be able to render emergency medical aid under any circumstances. But that still doesn’t address the crucial question of how so many firefighters fell through the seams and functioned in the department without certificates.

One answer is that state law doesn’t specifically mandate that fire departments require their personnel to be EMT certified. That’s a glaring and potentially public endangering loophole that the state Legislature must close.

But Compton city officials should not wait for state action, if any, on this. They should immediately issue a directive to the city fire department that all personnel that perform emergency medical services must be certified.

Another answer is that Compton city officials must bear some responsibility for not exercising rigorous and diligent scrutiny over the department to ensure that all of its personnel meet one of the most basic requirements, EMT certification, on a continuous and timely basis.

A city’s fire department, along with its police department, is responsible for protecting and saving lives. Any missteps by city officials in making sure that those department’s perform at anything less than peak pitch not only puts citizen’s lives in jeopardy but calls into question the diligence and concern of city officials.

Compton city officials must also confront another hard and painful fact. The fumble with the firefighters reinforces the deep-seated suspicion of many blacks and Hispanics that their lives can be put at risk, and public officials routinely are indifferent to that risk.

Compton city officials certainly would bristle at that notion. But the certification flap presents an opportunity for Compton city officials to make a quick course correction and thereby reassure residents that that is not the case.

The report on the Compton Fire Department then is a challenge to city officials there to correct a glaring and embarrassing public service failure. Compton city officials can and must do all too publicly reassure that their fire department personnel renders top flight professional service at all times.

And, equally important, that this terrible embarrassment to their department and Compton will not happen again.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. His new book, “From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History” (Middle Passage Press), is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0692370714.