4 ambulances out of commission on St. Thomas
Published: October 17, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - Already facing a staffing shortage, the St. Thomas-St. John division of Emergency Medical Services may not have enough ambulances to cover the islands.
With four of the newer vehicles in the shop for repairs, EMTs will have to fall back on old, outdated units, some of them without working sirens, PA systems and with dangerous mechanical problems, such as compromised brake systems, according to EMTs who have recently resigned.
Units 12, 13, 8 and one other ambulance were sitting in the lot or repair dock at Metro Motors on Tuesday. One of the ambulances was undergoing extensive front-end work.
It is unclear how long the ambulances have been out of commission, as Health Commissioner Darice Plaskett did not respond to repeated requests from The Daily News for comment on this story.
EMS St. Thomas Coordinator Avon Chesterfield and Training Officer James Petty Jr. deferred all questions to Plaskett.
During the summer, three EMTs quit the St. Thomas-St. John division, citing gross mismanagement at EMS and the non-responsiveness of the V.I. Health Department to address concerns about inadequate training, sexual harassment and a lack of basic protocols, medicines and equipment.
The Daily News published an investigative report in May outlining the impact of these internal problems on response times and patient safety.
The former St. Thomas EMTs said that among their concerns were the public safety threat involved in using ambulances without sirens, lights or working PA systems. This confuses motorists and delays response times and puts EMTs at risk as they are harder to locate without lights at scenes where police may have to follow to assist, they said.
"I would have my partner driving in front yelling and waving at cars to move, and it was ridiculous," said Robert Major, an EMT who resigned a few months ago.
"We knew when we got in them, we were just not going to be able to get traffic to move. People would think we were being sarcastic. When seconds and minutes count in life-saving situations, when you are stuck in traffic, it reduces the patient care.
"Unit 8 had had more trauma than Hannibal Lecter," Major said. "It would be leaking transmission fluids, and a lot of the time our radios didn't even work. We didn't even have the proper radio to reach the hospital. The overall drive train on it was bad, as well."
He said Chesterfield coerced him and other EMTs into riding in ambulances they knew to be unsafe.
"Chesterfield would just tell us, 'Get in the ambulance for a day. We are going to figure it out.' He would threaten people and say, 'You get in the ambulance or you go home,' " Major said.
According to Alson Lockhart - another EMT who said he left the division after his complaints fell on deaf ears and after his superiors reacted with hostility to his reporting problems at EMS to The Daily News - the ambulances at Metro Motors were purchased in 2009 or 2012. The remaining ambulances in the fleet have been on the road since 2003 or earlier.
This is a violation of the EMTs union contract with the Health Department, as it states that the EMTs should not operate vehicles more than 10 years old or beyond a certain mileage, according to Lockhart.
Lockhart said that for basic safety and coverage a total of four ambulances should be fully operable at any given time. Two EMT crews are on duty during each shift, but in addition to the two ambulances they are assigned, at least one back-up for each crew should be maintained in case of breakdowns or malfunctions.
He said he could not see how the division could be maintaining this standard, because by the time he left EMS, about half of the fleet was inoperable because of serious mechanical issues, including engine problems, power steering systems giving out and loose or malfunctioning brakes.
He said even the ambulances currently in for repairs had been having trouble climbing hills and that he had expressed such to his crew chief, to EMS Supervisor Kimba Turnbull and to Chesterfield, who chided or chastised him for bringing it their attention or for "grounding" ambulances that did not meet a checklist of safety features.
Lockhart said that during a single shift he once grounded three ambulances, including Unit 6, which failed to steer right on a call to Morning Star beach. The other two ambulances available also were rickety and unsafe, he said.
"They were presenting problems that can and will jeopardize not just me, but also a motorist and even a patient that may be in the back of the ambulance at the time," Lockhart said.
Lockhart said that in the district on more than one occasion EMT crews had been called to assist one of their own after an ambulance encountered problems in the field. Lockhart said the situation was absurd and dangerous, as EMTs were tied up troubleshooting instead of being ready in case a call came from 911.
Lockhart and Major both said that many times EMTs had approached Plaskett about the ambulance fleet being unsafe but that Turnbull and Chesterfield continued to put off the necessary repairs to a later date.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.