3 Ways to Improve EMS Driver Safety

By Shimon Feldman | May 20, 2019

Imagine receiving the call that gets every emergency medical technician’s (EMT) heart racing: a child is unresponsive and not breathing. If you are behind the wheel of the responding ambulance, you want to do everything in your power to get there quickly, even if it means bending the rules. After all, a child’s life is at stake. But if your sense of urgency impairs your driving and you end up causing injury to yourself, your patient or pedestrians en route, who exactly have you helped? How much care are you providing if you’re endangering yourself and others while piloting a 10,000 to 20,000 pound vehicle?

These are the questions I raise when training EMTs under my supervision. Driver safety and training is something I’ve continually fought for in my years in the EMS industry. Here in New York City, where drivers have to navigate everything from sixteen lane intersections and narrow one way streets, they are constantly tested. I always tell the men and women I’m training if they encounter a situation that they are uncomfortable with, don’t simply “push through.” No one benefits from an EMS driver that jeopardizes their own and other’s safety in the name of expediency.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2015 puts the issue in stark focus. An estimated 6,500 collisions involving an ambulance occur each year, and 35 percent of ambulance accidents caused an injury or fatality to at least one person involved.  The report found that in serious crashes investigated by the NHTSA, only 33% of patients and 16% of EMS providers were properly restrained at the time of the collision.

When it comes to driver and safety training requirements, regulations vary from state to state. Here in New York, the state does not mandate EMT driver training, so the instruction and guidance EMTs receive from their employers can vary greatly. Some companies make investments into driving simulators to make sure their workers are prepared for a variety of situations and conditions. Others simply hand over the keys to new employees and say “don’t wreck it.”

EMT workers also have varying degrees of experience driving large vehicles before taking the wheel of an ambulance. Some, especially veterans, have driven large transport vehicles and tanks before. Others take their driver’s test specifically for their EMT job and have limited experience driving any type of vehicle. Regardless of previous experience, however, all drivers must follow basic safety principles including not texting or calling while driving. Here are three additional ways that EMTs can promote safety while they provide urgent care and transportation:

1)     Create a sense of urgency with leadership – Driver training programs require funding, so communicate with leadership about the potential return on investment. Technology like a simulator can be pricey, but so are collisions and lawsuits – one New York EMS company, for example, just paid a half-million dollar settlement for property damage related to a crash.

2)     Leverage learning opportunities and resources – When formally or informally training staff, use instances of bad weather and unexpected traffic conditions as learning opportunities. The International Public Safety Association also has recommendations for how to reduce EMT driving-related injuries and deaths.

3)     Make rest mandatory – It’s not uncommon for an EMT to have more than one job, given the pay scale in the industry. Juggling multiple jobs increases the risk of employees showing up to work exhausted. Pilots have to be rested before they fly a plane; there should be similar guidelines in place to make sure EMT drivers are focused and on top of their game.

It’s National EMS week, a time to honor the dedication of those who provide the day-to-day lifesaving services of medicine’s front line. I can think of no better way of honoring our work than to put measures in place to help us keep ourselves, our patients and our roads safe.

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Shimon Feldman

Licensed Emergency Medical Technician

Shimon Feldman has nearly 12 years of experience as a licensed New York State Emergency Medical Technician. Feldman most recently served as the Director of Safety for a New York City private ambulance company where he was responsible for the daily operations and oversight of 400 employees. Feldman has a Bachelor of Science in Health Administration.

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