Like many Kansas City public high school students, Amauri Steele didn’t have a clear career path in mind. So as a senior this year, he signed up for Manual Tech’s new emergency medical technician licensing class that had him on an ambulance ride-along this month.
And it was quite a ride. Suddenly, he was watching the crew stick a tube down a patient’s throat to help her breathe. Everything he had learned about basic life-saving techniques started to come into focus, and it was a revelation.
“After this ride, I say this is really what I want to do,” Steele, 17, recalled of his experience. “It gave me chills to my body; yes, I could see myself doing this every day. This is great. I plan on joining the Fire Department next year.”
A high school EMT class isn’t unique. But what makes Steele’s class one-of-a-kind, Kansas City officials believe, is that it offers a direct path from high school to a Kansas City Fire Department job.
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“What makes this unique is we have told up to 10 graduates with a license that we will hire them to be a preapprentice on the Kansas City Fire Department,” Fire Chief Paul Berardi said.
More than three years ago, Berardi started thinking about such a pilot program because it could help solve two problems: First, too many high school students in Kansas City’s urban core don’t have a good sense of their career choices. And second, the Fire Department needs to hire more EMTs, especially women and minorities, in a workforce that’s about 80 percent filled with white men.
“It helps the Fire Department out, because we’re hiring EMTs and not training them. They come to us trained,” Berardi said of these Manual Tech seniors, who will take their EMT licensing tests in May. “And we wanted to provide opportunities for Kansas City high school students for a good career.”
An article about the program, by James Garrett and Richard Gist of the Fire Department, appears in this month’s Firehouse magazine, a national news and information source for the fire service. Its title: “Progressive Recruitment = Increased Diversity.”
The teacher, Trina Townsell, is a 17-year veteran of MAST ambulance and the Fire Department who has a ton of EMT field training experience, comes from the same community as these students, and has a passion to inspire them.
“I’ve seen her interact with the students, and they relate to her,” Berardi said. “It has exceeded expectations.”
Townsell wishes she’d had such an opportunity when she was a 17-year-old teen mom at Southeast High School years ago. She quit school and had some hard times before she and her sister took a class at Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust that launched her on a successful employment path.
“I can relate to these children, and I know that when they see someone like me that was able to, I guess, come out of the trenches and do this, then they can, too,” Townsell said of her students. “I’m just proud to be a part of their dream. To be able to be a part of their dream and help them with their future.”
Once hired as fully employed preapprentices, they will spend up to a year learning about different department functions, including communications, logistics and being credentialed on an ambulance. Then they can be hired as full EMTs and attend the fire academy, to get cross-trained as firefighters. They can also become eligible for community college scholarships to train as paramedics.
Townsell, an energetic and outgoing person with a clear affection for her students, had been working with Berardi to find someone to teach the class when it dawned on her that she could do it. Kansas City Public Schools agreed to host the program at Manual Tech, and Townsell started recruiting at Central, Southeast and Southwest high schools last spring. The interest was high.
“A lot of them recruited us,” Townsell said. “They wanted to be here. … Then the fact that they’re getting a job with the Fire Department, that was something they’re really excited about.”
Still, not everyone stuck with it. The class has dwindled from 20 to nine young women and four young men. Townsell said some students had life challenges that got in the way.
But these 13 “are strong,” and she’s confident they’ll pass the licensing tests at the end of the semester. They attend their home high schools in the mornings but come to Manual Tech every day from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., learning all aspects of anatomy, CPR and basic life-support skills. Townsell has also taught them “soft skills,” such as how to be articulate communicators, how to work in teams and solve problems, and especially how to study and take tests.
On a recent day, the class focused on “trauma,” as students roll-played dressing wounds for patients with abdominal trauma and a gunshot wound, administered oxygen, and took blood pressure and other vital signs.
For the students, Townsell is “like a second mother to all of us,” said Ramon Strickland, 18, whose home school is Southeast. He originally signed up for a construction class, but Townsell’s recruitment prompted him to switch to EMT training.
Strickland was surprised at how much “book work” has been required, but he found it paid off when he did his ambulance ride-along, which included both psychiatric patients and a woman with congestive heart failure.
Jamie Jefferson, 18, also from Southeast, had first enrolled in computer classes but switched to Manual Tech’s EMT class. “This has been more interesting,” she said. “I know when I get this job there’s something new every day.” She appreciates the pathway to the Fire Department’s preapprentice program and hopes to eventually qualify for a paramedic scholarship.
Robert Wesley, 17, is not a Kansas City Public Schools student. He attends Raytown South High School but heard about the program from a friend, and his mom and college adviser encouraged him to pursue it. He’s glad they did.
“This class gave me a big leg up,” he said.
The class has gone so well that the plan is to have both a morning and afternoon class next year, serving as many as 30 students from both Kansas City and Hickman Mills.
One of the best aspects of the class, Berardi and others said, is that the Fire Department has provided a half-dozen mentors to work with the students on a regular basis. They’ve helped coach many of the students and have taken some to fire stations to get a flavor of life as a firefighter.
Stazie Archibald, an EMT field training officer and one of the mentors, says she’s observed how the students have matured through this year, coming out of their shells of shyness, learning to assess a patient’s situation and function well in teams.
“It’s a great opportunity for these kids and for the department, as well,” she said of hiring people from the communities served most by the ambulances. “I think it gives us the opportunity to have that home-grown, home-trained feel.”