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3News Extra: Signing Up to Save Lives - What it takes to be a CCFD paramedic

The Corpus Christi Fire Department has a staff of just over 400 firefighters who are also required to be paramedics. As the city grows, so does the need for qualified individuals.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — When someone is in need of medical help, EMTs and paramedics are usually the first on the scene of an emergency.  As the city grows, so does the need to find qualified people to fill those positions.

Currently, the Corpus Christi Fire Department has a staff of just over 400 firefighters who are also required to be paramedics.

Earlier this month, the fire department posted a picture of a room filled with applicants who were on hand to take the entrance exam to try and get into the fire academy. There were more than 300 people there. Out of those, only a handful will have what it takes to actually make it.

It can be a demanding job. When paramedics hit the streets, they know they have to be ready for whatever challenges await them.

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"It's actually been pretty incredible," Firefighter Aaron Hernandez said. "You know it was a baptism by fire. This was my first 9-1-1 job."

Hernandez works at Fire Station 3 on Morgan Avenue, which is one of the busiest fire houses in the county.

"We get about 24 calls in a shift," Hernandez said. "We work 24 hours a day."

3News spent time with Hernandez and his partner Brad Crabtree during part of their shift. It's hectic as they are ready to respond to any emergency -- emergencies like heart attacks, strokes, seizures, cardiac arrests, even gunshots wounds and car accidents.

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"Whenever we see them, it's usually going to be their worst day," said firefighter and paramedic Brad Crabtree.

"There's so many times where you have to think back to those times in school or when you were in the academy," Hernandez said. "They really do prepare you for what you see out here."

But despite all of those high stress situations, it's worth it according to Hernandez.

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"It's definitely rewarding to see people recover and get better and get them out of those tough situations," Hernandez said.

Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, is the first level of certification followed by paramedic. In order to work as a paramedic in the city, the journey must begin at Del Mar College's West Campus.

"I never thought I would be in this position to get paid to be in school," James Meyer said.

Meyer is among the 31 cadets currently being trained to become the next generation of firefighters and paramedics in the city.

"For me, I just wanted to do it since I was five years old when I saw my first fire truck," Meyer said. "Told myself that is what I'm going to do."

Just to become a cadet, applicants must first go through an entrance exam. They have to be between 19 and 36 years old. They must also have a high school diploma or GED. A valid drivers license is also required, and they must be a U.S. citizen.

That's not all. There is a physical ability test, a panel interview, a background investigation, as well as a psychological and medical exam.

The certification course is intense. From EMT to paramedic to firefighter, it can take over a year of hands-on learning. To prepare the cadets, they must train for real life emergencies. They go through a number of different scenarios.

In one scenario, a 65-year-old man is found unresponsive in a bathtub. The cadets must administer CPR to a dummy and transport the patient to another classroom set up as an emergency room.

"It's not black and white. It's not putting out a fire," Meyer said. "It's responding to what you have in front of you, and sometimes you don't have a lot of time to prepare for that."

The cadets know when they hit the streets, they will be making life-or-death decisions.

"I come from a whole line of Corpus Christi police officers and firefighters in my family. It's in our nature to come and help," 27-year-old Kassandra Goce said.

Goce is one of the few women in the academy right now.

"It was intimidating at first. How am I going to keep up with the guys," Goce said. "They have been amazing and supportive."

A big part of the program is based on medical calls. Instructors can watch the students from a camera feed installed in a makeshift ambulance in the classroom.

"We can upload the video to the student, and they can determine what things they could have done better, or maybe some things that went really well for them," said Melissa Stuive, EMS program director at Del Mar College. "My goal for this program is to provide the community with paramedics and EMTs that are capable to be competent in their profession, so we are responsible for what happens to our community and who we send out there."

Stuive said there is a huge need for paramedics, and also EMTs throughout the Coastal Bend.

"To start in the paramedic program you have to have EMT basic," Stuive said. "A lot of our rural communities are working towards getting paramedics. Some of our paramedics are exploring other avenues in the fire department or working in the hospital setting in the ER."

Last year the Corpus Christi Fire Department made an estimated 50,000 calls. A majority, 40,000 of them, were medical calls.

"One of the reasons why we are so insistent on people who come to work for us become a paramedic is because the bulk of our work is in the medical field," CCFD Chief Robert Rocha said.

Rocha said he takes great pride in the type of training his firefighters and paramedics receive and strives to have a diverse department. In fact, the CCFD receives applications from all over the country.

"We are reflective of the community," Rocha said. "We make a great effort in recruiting not only female, but African-American members of the community."

According to the City of Corpus Christi's website, a firefighter's salary ranges from $3,321 monthly while in the academy to $4,244 monthly after graduation from the academy. To learn more about the qualifications and to apply to become a member of the Corpus Christi Fire Department, click here.

For more information about becoming a 9-1-1 dispatcher, click here.

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