EMSA ambulance drivers in 38 crashes with other vehicles since January; response times increased

TULSA - Cutting down on the number of ambulance accidents is one reason why EMSA says it needs to extend how long it takes an ambulance to get to an emergency.

It was 3:00 in the morning, and Jeanie Crone woke up to a nightmare.

"I'd awaken from a deep sleep. My breathing was suddenly irregular," said Jeanie Crone.

She was frightened.

"Just not being able to breath was probably the most frightening and feeling like you were going to pass out at any time," said Jeanie.

Her husband called 911. Firefighters and EMSA paramedics soon arrived.

"They had determined that my heart was racing at 200 beats a minute at that point," she said.

Jeanie was rushed to the hospital. Time was critical and she says her ride could have taken even longer if the ambulance had gotten into an accident on the way.

The 2NEWS Investigators pored over accident data and found over the past two and a half years EMSA paramedics have had 123 collisions with other vehicles in Green Country.

EMSA field supervisor Jason Whitlow says that's because ambulances are on the road a lot.

"Hundreds of thousands of miles, as a fleet, we drive, pretty easily. So the odds are just sheer bad luck you're going to get into an accident," said Whitlow.

There are 45 ambulances in the EMSA fleet. The entire fleet averages 750,000 miles per year. On average an ambulance is in an accident with another car every 15,000 miles.

Of those accidents, 70% of the time the ambulance wasn't running lights and sirens.

"A lot of those as we call, as you call, accidents are when a car backs into us or pulls out in front of us, like a normal deal," said Stephen Williamson, the CEO of EMSA.

We asked Whitlow why EMSA needed to extend its ambulance response times when only 30% of the accidents were with lights and sirens.

"Those 30%, those accidents tend to be a little more severe, and I think that's probably why. These trucks are big. They're heavy. They don't stop on a dime, and they're very strong vehicles. They tend to do a lot of damage if they hit something," said Whitlow.

Like an accident that happened on Brookside last year.

According to the police report, the ambulance driver told officers he, "Activated the ambulance's emergency lights and sirens, then made a right-hand turn." The report went on to say as the ambulance was making a turn, it hit the Mustang.

But that's not what witness Kris Boyne says he saw. He says he was walking down the road when the ambulance hit the car.

"He had no where to go. The ambulance was coming into his lane," said Boyne, talking about the driver of the Mustang.

And that part about lights and sirens, Kris said, "There were no lights and sirens engaged at the time that I witnessed."

The 2NEWS Investigators wanted to know how other cities stack up when it comes to ambulance accidents.

We found the ambulance service in Wichita, Kan. has had just three collisions with other vehicles from January through September of this year. That compares to at least 38 collisions in the Tulsa area for the same time frame.

EMSA says its numbers are higher because they believe they are busier.

"I know our call volume tends to be higher than cities of a comparable size, by a tremendous amount actually," said Whitlow.

The 2NEWS Investigators looked into it, and we found EMSA does respond to more calls. EMSA averages 68,000 a year, while Wichita averages 56,000, that's a difference of 18%. Still, this year EMSA drivers have been in 12 times as many accidents with other vehicles compared to Wichita.

The director for the Wichita ambulance service attributes its low number of accidents to its policy.

Ambulance drivers can only drive 10 miles an hour over the speed limit in an emergency, and if they drive faster than that, their supervisor will know it. GPS in the ambulance sends an e-mail to the supervisor every time the ambulance goes more than ten miles an hour over the speed limit in the city. The director says traveling at that rate reduces accidents and only adds two minutes to to their drive. Also, their response times stand at 8:59 for emergencies, that's what Tulsa's was before it was increased by two minutes.

RELATED STORY: Council votes to extend ambulance times; goes into effect Nov. 1 (http://bit.ly/18hdwjs)

As for EMSA, it has a box in its ambulances that sounds off when an ambulance driver makes a mistake, such as a driver turning too sharply. EMSA also has three to five days of driving training for new employees. Whitlow says EMSA also conducts classroom driving training two to three times every year. Again, EMSA hopes increasing response times will bring down its number of accidents.

Plus, Whitlow says he's now examining each ambulance accident.

"Each time we have an accident we need to sit down with that employee and anybody else involved and say what was going on when it happened," he said.

Jeanie can't imagine what would've happened if the ambulance that was on its way to her had crashed.

"The longer your heart beats at 200 beats a minute the better your chances of having a stroke," said Jeanie.

EMSA says it will work to get to calls quicker than 10 minutes and 59 seconds, its new response time requirement.

The change means that ambulances must get to calls within that time 90% of the time or the ambulance provider could face fines.

As far as the accidents go, the 2NEWS Investigators will track them to see if these new response times do cause the number of accidents to go down.

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