Risky Rescues

It may seem hard to believe, but if you ever find yourself injured in an accident, the ride to the hospital in an ambulance may put you in even greater danger. 
Just about every minute of every day they're out on the streets: lights flashing, sirens sounding, making their way to an accident scene, a fire, home or hospital...saving lives. But all too often the ambulance that saves lives sometimes costs lives.
Ambulances get into accidents more often than you might think. Every year nationwide these rescue vehicles are involved in 6,500 serious accidents resulting in more than 35 deaths. At least 10 people are seriously injured every day.
But now the clincher: despite these alarming numbers, there are no hard and fast federal safety standards for ambulances, in part because, unlike just about every car and truck sold in America, ambulances are not crash tested.
Ed Moser\Rural Metro:  "it's a dangerous part of the job."

Ed Moser and the people at Rural Metro in Syracuse are all too aware of the fact that ambulances are not crash tested. The problem is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working on the problem but is having trouble coming up with a standard for such tests. So right now, most safety research is in the hands of private individuals and the ambulance industry itself.

Ed Moser\Rural Metro: "Right now, it's so new, we're just really really getting into it. So the jury is still out. There's still got to be more testing done."

The research that is underway points to several main problems: the design of most ambulances makes them somewhat top heavy and subject to rollovers. The passenger compartment is joined to the cab so in a side impact the two might separate. Sometimes the patient and paramedics may not be strapped down. But the greatest risk of injury is from the many objects that can become missiles inside the patient section.

Mike Donohue\Service Mgr, Rural Metro: "Any medical equipment is secured,such as trauma bags...life packs, cause, like I said, if they're not secured you could get in an accident and this goes flying. It could really hurt somebody."

Mike Donohue is the Service Manager at Rural Metro. It's his job to make sure every ambulance in the fleet is road worthy and safe. These vehicles take quite a beating. They have an average life of 4 to 6 years, each year raking up about 50,000 miles.

Mike Donohue\Service Mgr, Rural Metro: "Even 50,000 miles run in the city, it's a lot of miles and it certainly takes a toll because of the city streets."

You'd hit a pot hole pretty hard with this.

Mike Donohue\Service Mgr, Rural Metro: "And we've actually lost suspension parts and axles hitting pot holes in the city."

Mike points with pride to this sticker: a certification from the commission on accreditation of ambulance services. It means Rural Metro of Syracuse meets voluntary industry standards. Here's another startling number: of the 12,000 ambulance agencies in the nation, only 88 have this national accreditation, and Rural Metro is only one of seven in New York state.

So, bottom line, without federal crash testing and regulations governing the design and operation of rescue vehicles it's up to the ambulance industry to police itself, and it appears very few meet their own strict guidelines.   So until current research yeilds national standards, ambulances are getting into accidents, people are getting hurt and some are dying.

Ed Moser\Rural Metro: "You're not good to a patient if you don't get there at all."

Knowing the safety problems with ambulances it's up to the skills of the ambulance drivers to make your ride to the hospital a safe one.  


If ambulances have a safety design problem it's up to the skill of the drivers to make sure you get to the hospital. As you're about to see, the problem may not be the ambulances as much as the other drivers on the road.

Every day ambulances hit the streets to save lives, but too often the ambulance that saves lives sometimes cost lives. Many experts agree the design of ambulances could be a lot safer but there are few safety standards. Unlike many other vehicles, ambulances do not undergo federally sponsored crash tests.   Every year ambulances are involved in 6500 crashes.  35 people died in those crashes every year. Every day 10 people are seriously injured in an ambulance crash.   

The people who drive ambulances know the inherent risks in the design of these vehicles, so their training often means the difference between a safe ride to the hospital or a dangerous crash.  

For instance, drivers will rarely use sirens if they can avoid it. They know from experience that drivers often drive erratically when they're suddenly surprised by a loud siren.

Dave Delucia\Rural Metro: "Now that they're engineering cars to be more and more soundproof, people might not hear you until you're very close. Also, people tend to play their stereos very loud. So it's very unpredictable."

Besides, lights and sirens apparently don't make that much of a difference. A  study by Rural Metro finds that the use of emergency lights and sirens save only 45 to 90 seconds in getting to the scene. So these emergency responders have to make choices that aren't always popular.

Dave Delucia\Rural Metro: "It's easy for me to say if some child has a broken leg, we really shouldn't go lights and sirens because it's not a life threatening injury,  but if you're the parent of that person waiting for an ambulance out in the cold with a broken leg, you may see it very differently."

To show you what we mean by risky rescues we rode along with  paramedics Misty Goodnough and Tony Morrock on a typical day's work.   This particular morning they responded to three medical emergencies which all required the use of lights and sirens.

Keep in mind that emergency vehicles have special privelges but have to obey the same rules of the road. They can't pass on the right and can only exceed the speed limit by 10 miles per hour.   

"Left here and a right on Patterson."

On each call the driver's eyes would constantly scan sideroads and the mirrors while the partner would call out directions as well as any hazards that might crop up. For the most part, drivers would pull over to the right. By law they should come to a complete stop.

There were several close calls. Here, as they approach an intersection on West Street, this blue Sunfire blows right through the intersection. Fortunately they saw it coming.

On Hiawatha Boulevard, the ambulance had to stop because the driver of this car refused to yield. A little further down the road the ambulance had to veer into the oncoming lane to make its way around lines of cars.

Watch what happens on James Street. Not only does this car stop right in the middle of the street, so does another car in the oncoming lane. For a moment, no one knows what to do. Finally, the ambulance makes its way around the first car by going into the oncoming lane.

For these paramedics it's all in a day's work. Saving lives is one part of the job, driving to the hospital  is another.

"Good to see you're still on the stretcher so my driving wasn't too bad."

So right now, as the federal government looks for ways to standardize safety designs of ambulances, it's up to the industry to police itself, the drivers to keep their skills high and all of us to make sure we get out of their way.