OLD SAYBROOK - Police Chief Michael Spera would be facing a nearly $30,000 bill for overtime costs in the next few weeks but for officers' generosity.
Almost every officer is training to become a certified emergency medical technician by taking 90 hours of classes for about two months after their shifts and on days off, without overtime pay.
Those who aren't participating are already certified.
"Old Saybrook cops are giving (up) overtime just to help people who are having a medical crisis," Spera, a licensed paramedic and instructor, said Wednesday at Clark Memorial Field's banquet facility, where classes are held.
"They get nothing in return when they pass the class -- like a higher salary or stipend -- other than delivering good services to the town."
Police officers are the first responders in town to any medical emergency, and EMTs usually come next, followed by paramedics. That's why Spera has wanted more officers to become certified since he became chief in July 2009.
When he surveyed the force a few months ago, all but two officers already certified said they'd like to take an EMT course. Spera knew the department couldn't afford to pay that much overtime, expecting only a few people to opt in. When he told officers they couldn't be paid overtime if they all wanted to take the class together, the police union approved forgoing the extra pay.
After finishing classes in March and as long as they pass the national exam soon after, every officer will be a licensed EMT, said Spera, who is helping to teach the course with paramedic Phil Coco. Now, police are considered emergency responders who can use defibrillators, deliver babies, administer oxygen and help patients in a limited capacity, according to Spera. EMTs then provide basic care and bring people to the hospital, while paramedics provide advanced care.
The group takes eight-hour classes a few days a week, learning about various illnesses, symptoms and treatments. While cops are in class, Spera and the two officers already certified respond to all calls in town.
Wednesday afternoon, 16 uniformed officers listened to Jeffrey Bernstein, an emergency room physician at Middlesex Hospital, discuss respiratory distress as dummies and rescue equipment lay scattered on the floor behind them.
"There are some guys sitting in there, wide awake, answering questions, and they worked the midnight shift and then came to class," Spera said. "It speaks to the caliber of the personnel serving our town."
Police commission Chairwoman Christina Burnham said the board wasn't surprised when Spera announced what the officers agreed to do, saying, "We've seen over the last year the great work they are doing, and we're very gratified so many wanted to do this."
Some officers, such as Shannon Miller, had already planned to become certified EMTs.
"It's part of my job. I would want to do it anyway. I don't want to be clueless if I'm the first on the scene," she said. "I look at it as every patient is someone's relative. If that were my mom or dad or uncle or brother, I'd want the best possible care."