Should tactical paramedics carry guns in Centre County? Here’s why they want training

Members of the Centre County Tactical Response Team walk through Tudek Park in August 2017 as they look for the suspect who robbed SPE Federal Credit Union on Science Park Road.
Members of the Centre County Tactical Response Team walk through Tudek Park in August 2017 as they look for the suspect who robbed SPE Federal Credit Union on Science Park Road. Centre Daily Times, file

Funding for certain Centre LifeLink EMS personnel to receive weapons training hasn’t even been approved yet, but the proposal is causing controversy and what Centre LifeLink officials call “misinformation” about their request.

The Centre LifeLink board recently requested $10,000 from the Centre Region Council of Governments for eight tactical paramedics who support the Centre County Tactical Response Team to undergo Act 235 Lethal Weapons Training.

Though the funding request does not mean the Centre LifeLink board will arm tactical paramedics, it was met with overwhelming opposition from the COG General Forum. Only a few members spoke in favor of the training. Elliot Abrams, the Patton Township chairman, said, in support, “This (training) is an insurance policy. Hopefully we’ll never have to use it.”

State College Borough Council Representative Theresa Lafer said at the meeting that she was “not certain that (approving the funding) provides security for the people who need the care.” Later, she added that lethal weapons training would lead to “more people with more guns.”

The lethal weapons training costs $400 per person, and the rest of the requested funding would cover lost employee wages, test and evaluation costs.

COG did not vote on the matter at its Sept. 24 meeting.

Kent Knable, the EMS chief for Centre LifeLink, said he’s worried about some of the “misinformation” circulating about the CCTRT in light of the COG meeting, including the notion that EMTs would be armed, which is not authorized in the state of Pennsylvania and was not proposed by the Centre LifeLink board.

The CCTRT is made up of 12 certified law enforcement officials from the Bellefonte Borough, Ferguson Township, Patton Township, Penn State, Spring Township and State College police departments.

There are five tactical paramedics and one tactical physician currently serving the CCTRT, but the Centre LifeLink board requested funding to train eight. These paramedics go out on routine EMS calls for Centre LifeLink, but they also accompany the CCTRT when they are called out to a high-risk, dangerous situation, such as a warrant service, riot or hostage situation.

They also provide medical education and lifesaving support to the law enforcement officers on the CCTRT, and treat any injured civilian bystanders or perpetrators.

“A huge part of what we do in our jobs has nothing to do with firearms,” said Dr. Clifford Neal, the tactical physician on the CCTRT and 45-year EMS veteran. “Our job is to prevent these officers from being injured.”

Tactical paramedics also give presentations to law enforcement about spider and insect bites, staying hydrated during hot weather, first aid kit usage and the risks of using tear gas in a crowd.

The members of the tactical paramedic team have a combined 100-plus years of experience in law enforcement, EMS and the military.

CCTRT lead medic Jeff Brytczuk said the team gets called out about five or six times a year and also provides help for the Mobile Field Force, which covers riots and large events downtown.

On a typical high-risk call, said Brytczuk, a minimum of two tactical paramedics will “embed” with a team of law enforcement officers and monitor their health and well-being. Paramedics do not carry weapons, but they wear the same protective gear — such as helmets and bulletproof vests — that officers wear, and often appear indistinguishable from them.

The Science Park Road bank robbery with bomb threats in 2017 is a good example of a type of situation in which paramedics having weapons training would have been helpful, Brytczuk said.

“The worst case scenario would be something happening to one of our officers and we need to render aid to them and a lethal threat presents itself to us, while we’re having to take care of that officer who ... was tasked with protecting us,” he said.

Brytczuk, Neal, Knable and tactical paramedics Jason Tartalone and John Miles said situations like the shooting of five police officers in Florence, South Carolina, warranted serious discussions about lethal weapons training for tactical paramedics.

To become a certified tactical paramedic, paramedics are required to go through 56 hours of training in the Counter Narcotics and Terrorism Operational Medical Support program (CONTOMS). The Act 235 Lethal Weapons Training requires 40 hours of class time to become certified and is recognized by the Pennsylvania State Police.

Tactical paramedics train twice a month with the CCTRT and are required to be proficient with all weapons the team uses, from pepper spray to assault rifles. With the lethal weapons training, “there’s continual, ongoing training (after the certification) ... we would be held to the same qualification standard as any of the police officers on the team,” Brytczuk said.

The Centre LifeLink board has approved Act 235 Lethal Weapons Training, but has not made a decision whether to allow tactical paramedics to carry firearms during calls. It is against state law and Centre LifeLink policy to have a firearm on an ambulance or any type of emergency transport vehicle.

“This class (Act 235 training) does not allow us or grant us permission to carry weapons,” said Miles.

It would, said Tartalone, allow a tactical paramedic to pick up a weapon at the scene of a dangerous event and render it safe or use it in a defensive manner.

Through a Department of Health amendment to the Pennsylvania Code, tactical paramedics may carry weapons while on a special missions. That provision is separate from Act 235 training.

“We want to keep the level of this team trained to the best potential they have,” said Neal.

The COG General Forum will formally consider Centre LifeLink’s funding request at its Oct. 29 meeting.