By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

City of Merced Fire Chief Derek Parker was just a volunteer administering shots to Merced County residents when he met Merced College President Chris Vitelli at the school’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic back in February.

It was a quick exchange, Vitelli shaking Parker’s hand and saying, “Hey, if you ever want to partner up on any projects, let me know.”

The fire chief, just over a month on the Merced Fire job at the time, jumped at the opening. Parker would soon come back to Vitelli to tell him the area urgently needed to start training paramedics locally.

The chance meeting and response put Parker and City of Merced Battalion Chief Mickey Brunelli, also a Merced College alumnus, on an 11-month quest to bring a paramedic training program to their alma mater.

“Chief Parker explained to me there was an increasing workforce gap in regional paramedics and a local program would greatly benefit the community,” Vitelli said. “My usual answer to a common sense solution is ‘Let’s make it happen.’”

The Merced College program will welcome its inaugural class in January.

“Paramedics provide the industry standard for excellence of care in a prehospital setting,” Parker said. “And I want to be involved in the excellence of this city. That’s important to me. It’s an easy solution to build up a local program with local people and train them to provide great service.”

Parker, now a chief/paramedic, took the Merced Fire job in his hometown after 12 years building the Sacramento State program. He came wanting to bring more trained paramedics into the fire service and to send more current firefighters to get paramedic certification.

“Keep in mind Merced is growing,” he said. “It might have had 60,000 residents when I started my career, but it will hit 100,000 soon. You need a different model of care. We have to be able to provide what a city of that size deserves.”

Parker and Brunelli are just two of many local fire service professionals in Merced County who started their careers within the fire technology and Emergency Medical Technician programs at Merced College. Adding paramedic training is a natural progression for the College.

Merced County has an acute need for medical personnel overall, since it operates with 40 percent fewer doctors per capita than the state average. By necessity, the local health care system leans harder on nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, nurses and paramedics.

But a handful of regional paramedic training centers, including the one at Columbia College in Sonora, where Brunelli trained and taught, and one in Sacramento before Parker revived it at Sac State, have shuttered in the past 15 years.

“We’re missing out on a lot of great local candidates by not having a program here,” said Brunelli, who returned to Merced three years ago after serving as the EMS Coordinator for the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

The nearest paramedic school is at Fresno City College, 59 miles south. The National College of Technical Instruction in Livermore is 92 miles northwest through Bay Area traffic, and Sacramento is two hours north.

“The solution is to grow our own, rather than expecting them to train somewhere else,” Parker said. “Having all of that in Merced will start giving us more solutions than obstacles.”

It takes between 1,200 and 1,500 hours of training to become a paramedic. EMTs can get in the field after 160. Paramedics provide much more difficult life-saving interventions. Parker and Brunelli are currently partnering with local hospitals to create clinical rotations in ER and ICU units, and establish internships, with regional ambulance services like Riggs and American, for field experience.

Merced County happens to be one of the best places in the state to train paramedics because of its challenges. There is no trauma center here. The nearest center for severe heart attacks is a 25-minute ride to Turlock; the nearest trauma center is in Modesto, 45 minutes away.

Brunelli tells of the time he went to the scene of a car accident in Snelling. It took 20 minutes to extract the man from his car, then another 50 to drive to the critical patient to Modesto through dense fog.

“I kept looking at the window, holding my breath and wondering, ‘Are we there yet?’” he said.

Here, more often than in larger places, the only person standing between the patient and survival is the paramedic.

“You’ll get experience and face-time with the patient here that you don’t get anywhere else,” Brunelli said.

Parker will direct the program; Brunelli is the clinical coordinator. Both are experienced paramedics and instructors, as well as career firefighters. They have a clear idea of how to get it done.

“When you’re from a place and work there, you feel pride and a sense of duty to that community,” Brunelli said. “We also feel responsible for recruiting the next generation. Once we get that cycle up and running here at Merced College, then it feeds itself. We can sustain it.”