“If I had a loved one that needed to go out of town in the middle of the night I would be very concerned.” Chilling words from a former employee of an area private ambulance service. This whistleblower has first-hand experience with what happens when a driver nods off at the wheel. They were in the back of an ambulance with a patient when the driver fell asleep. (Note: this source asked to remain anonymous. We will not name them or their former employer.)
This person contacted SCDN after reading part 1 of our Asleep At The Wheel series. They confirmed allegations by another former EMS worker in that article (including details he told us that didn’t make the article). This former first responder described their motivation for coming forward as, “My hopes in bringing light to the issue that we are not supposed to talk about will help save a life.”
Punished For Taking A Break
EMS safety expert Jonathan Godfrey told me he instituted a policy at his hospital where EMS workers can tap out (refuse a run) for fatigue or any other reason at any time without fear of punishment. He said the policy ultimately saves money and lives. However, my local source said workers were punished by their employer. “Tapping out with fatigue meant that you could get your hours taken or be put on 24-hour-shifts.”
This employee said they were extremely tired at work once and told the dispatcher they wanted to tap out with fatigue. They were advised it was best to call off sick instead in order to avoid the penalties for tapping out.
My source has the first-hand experience with the dangers of a drowsy driver. “I actually had an EMT fall asleep on the highway with a patient and me in the back. That’s kinda when I decided private EMS wasn’t for me.”
Another reason many workers push themselves past the breaking point is money. My source said, “The pay is not the best, so it’s all in the overtime.” I’m told many ambulance employees work an extreme amount of hours to make ends meet. “When the EMT wrecked me we weren’t on a 24-hour shift, but that person had worked an extreme about of hours already that week.”
Money is the motivator for ambulance services to keep workers on the road. “Over the years Medicare and Medicaid has decreased reimbursement. Of course, to save money, they do not have the crews they need. When there is a call-off they are already short-staffed. Their service is important to our area, it really is. However, they need to do it with another approach other than the least amount of crews making the max amount of runs.”
My source pointed out that there are more rules protecting drivers transporting goods than those transporting sick people. “Truck drivers have logged hours and so should private EMS.”
I’m also told there is little or no training for employees on how to assess their fatigue levels. My source said there was some training when the company first started working with air ambulances in order to obtain the contract. But not everyone got the training.
My source said that the push for profit also puts EMS workers on the road in poor conditions, even when transport isn’t an emergency. “In bad weather such as ice and snow, they still travel on the roads. It’s almost like the hospitals shipping the patients do not care even if it’s something that can wait. They are just ready to get them out to open a bed. They will not ever refuse because they want to keep the hospital’s business. So if someone that is very stable needs to be shipped maybe they start the process at 3 pm but a bed isn’t ready till 10 pm. But now it’s snowing in Columbus and there is ice on the road. Well, they still transport. Road conditions are never taken into consideration by the hospital or the ambulance service. It is very dangerous, to say the least.”
Perhaps the most telling part of this story is that my source said they would not allow a loved one to be transported by a night shift.
In fact, my family member wasn’t doing well a couple of years ago and the doctor said that they might have to be transferred. I said, ‘Let’s do it now’ because I did not want it to happen in the middle of the night for that very reason So we left at 9 pm instead of waiting till 3 am to see if the new medicine would work.”
My source acknowledged that private ambulance service is crucial to healthcare in our area. “They handle doctor appointments, emergencies, dialysis, and out-of-town transport.
Safety expert Jonathan Godfrey told me that there are usually three ways that changes come about in EMS. “There’s big money involved in a lawsuit or somebody dies. Those are the two big drivers And the power of the press.”
My local source hopes that speaking out will bring reform before the first two happen. “Hopefully, this will call for change.”
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