It's tough to recruit and keep talent, the Ford County fire chief said. Instead, it's best to "grow our own." One way: tuition for paramedic school.

Two EMTs seeking paramedic certification will receive advance tuition payments from the county at the request of Fire and EMS Chief Jay Taylor, who cited a difficulty in hiring and retaining qualified employees.

"We've had a very hard time getting paramedics," Taylor told the County Commission Tuesday. "If we don't grow our own, they won't stay."

"It's always been very difficult for us to bring in paramedics from outside and get them to stay very long. We might get a year out of them then we're back where we started," he added, also saying there is lost time every time the department has to orient new hires to the organization.

One of the difficulties is finding employees who can adjust to the relative lack of urban amenities in rural west Kansas, where, for example, the closest major mall is 150 miles away, Taylor said.

"They're accustomed to what they have available to them in those other states, so consequently they leave. That brings us back to 'We have to grow our own.' We like to pull from people in southwest Kansas that we know are not going to move off somewhere else," he said.

Last year, the county provided reimbursement to two department employees who recently finished the intensive, year-long program. Once they pass the certification exam, they will begin working shifts as paramedics.

This request is different than tuition reimbursement, as the department was seeking payment in advance. Taylor said the financial burden on each employee, about $5,000 each, would be too much for the two applicants.

"He is asking that we pay this for them for fear that due to the hardship we may lose both of them," County Administrator Ed Elam included in his notes on the issue.

"Our goal is to have at least one paramedic on every truck that rolls, or have a paramedic on route to scene. Right now, we can't do that, we don't have the staff to do that," Taylor said.

The department currently employs four paramedics, with Taylor and Deputy Chief Rob Boyd, both paramedics, filling in shifts as needed. Between overtime and the leadership taking shifts, the department has mostly been able to meet that goal, but it's been tight, Taylor said.

The department has also recently hired a paramedic from Nebraska, which, with the two recent paramedic program graduates, would increase the number to seven.

"I have guys that are great (basic EMTs), and there are great (advanced EMTs), but if I had nine or 10 on-shift personnel it would make me feel a lot better," Taylor said.

The Commission approved the $10,000 expenditure with the stipulation that the two paramedic students pass the class and certification exam, and sign a contract to work for the county department for at least two years.

"I think Ford County deserves as much advanced life support as we can get," Commissioner Danny Gillum said, "and this is a simple way to do it."

This, however, does not indicate a permanent change to the tuition reimbursement program, he said.

"I think we need to look at each case individually that is brought before as. But public safety is our number one concern, having paramedics who can do advance life support is crucial," said Gillum, who has been EMT-Advance certified since 1980.

"The statistics go up with regard to the chance of survival. I think our citizens and our visitors to Ford County deserve the best we can get them, and I don't think we can put a price on life," Gillum said.  

The decision was approved unanimously by the commission.