Two Long Beach Fire Department ambulance operators had responded to 19 calls in roughly 21 hours before they both fell asleep and the ambulance they were driving veered off of Los Coyotes Diagonal and into traffic signage and a power pole, the department said Thursday.

The two employees escaped the Sunday morning crash with minor injuries, but the incident has renewed calls for increased staffing in the Fire Department, whose personnel have warned that increased call volumes had led to fatigue and sleep deprivation resulting in unsafe working conditions.

Jake Heflin, a spokesperson for the department, said that the unit that crashed (BLS-16) averaged about 12.4 calls per day in 2022, however, two other ambulances were out of the rotation the day the crash happened because the department had no one to staff them, potentially adding to its call load.

Delays in transferring patients to local hospitals added to the staffing shortage issue. Heflin said that during that shift, 11 of BLS-16’s 19 calls involved transferring a patient off the ambulance gurney and into a hospital bed that averaged out to 30 minutes and 45 seconds each.

“It was a rough day,” Heflin said. “Very busy.”

The incident report completed by the department concluded that the primary cause of the crash was fatigue due to the number of calls that provided “limited and inconsistent opportunities to sleep,” with Heflin noting that the two employees did have the previous day off.

Unions representing the sworn members of the Fire Department as well as the non-sworn members, which includes the ambulance operators who crashed Sunday, sent a letter to the department this week demanding changes to alleviate the fatigue being experienced by their members.

Rex Pritchard, president of the Long Beach Firefighters Association, said responding to 19 calls in roughly 21 hours was “insane,” adding that with most calls averaging about an hour from when a unit leaves the station to when it returns, the two employees likely worked through their whole shift without a break before the accident.

The problem extends to the paramedics he represents, who are also responding to an increasing number of medical calls and also deal with long wait times at hospitals where they have to “hold the wall” until a patient is able to be transferred. Waiting takes a unit out of the department’s network and pushes calls onto other units that are available.

Fire personnel made these concerns and others known during interviews with consultants hired by the city recently to identify cuts that could be made within the department. The report, which the Post covered in October, detailed how “forced hiring” has led to fire personnel having to work mandatory shifts, sometimes requiring them to work for several days without a day off. The report has yet to be finalized and released to the public.

“We need more resources,” Pritchard said. “We need more people. We need more investment, because everything you read, our call volumes have increased exponentially over the years, and our ambulances haven’t grown with that.”

Natalie Gonzalez, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers 1930, which represents ambulance operators, said those workers make as little as $16 an hour, and with the amount of responsibility placed on them, those positions can be seen as less attractive.

However, because these positions are seen as potential stepping stones to landing a more lucrative position as a full-time firefighter, some members may not be speaking up about the working conditions because the ambulance operator position is seen as proving ground in the department.

Gonzalez said she wants to see some outline for the minimum hours of rest ambulance operators must have during their shift and a maximum for the number of hours they can work in a given week.

IAM is heading into contract negotiators with the city this year, but Gonzalez declined to say if the union would pursue those things. She pointed out that departmental budgets will soon be presented to city management in preparation for its public release this summer, adding that now is the time for the city to “figure it out.”

“Overtime is a short-term solution,” Gonzalez said. “It’s enough to get you by, but it shouldn’t be what the city relies on to provide services to the city.”

In a statement issued earlier this week, city management said it backed the sentiments outlined in a letter that Fire Chief Dennis Buchanan sent in response to the unions’ letter, which promised immediate actions to improve working conditions.

“The safety and well-being of our emergency personnel is of upmost priority,” the city said in an email. “City leadership will continue to work with Fire Department Command staff, labor unions and our sworn personnel to identify solutions that address these concerns and fosters a safe working environment that best supports and reflects the needs of our Fire personnel and the community we serve.”

One fix could be new legislation, which is working its way through committee in Sacramento and could set a 20-minute limit for how long ambulances wait to transfer patients at hospitals. Other changes will have to come from within.

Heflin said the department, for example, is working to get more ambulance operators into the field.

In the next week, the department expects to extend 43 people conditional job offers, and if background checks and medical exams go well, they can be in the field as soon as the third week of June.

The department is also looking to establish a pipeline program with Long Beach City College to bring new EMT-certified graduates into the ambulance operator positions. Heflin said the department is also looking at using lifeguards who are EMT-certified to fill positions.

The roughly 25 firefighters that are away at paramedic school are expected to be back in the field within the next six months, Heflin said, and the department is working to backfill their positions with new firefighter recruits.

The department is also shortening its ambulance operator training program from two weeks to one week and is working with the city to expedite the hiring processes for the department.

Ambulance operators are an important position and can serve as a gateway to a firefighting career, as it allows people to live and work in a fire station and show their work ethic, Heflin said.

“You work hard, you do your best, you show up, you got tenacity and drive and motivation—all the things we look for in a firefighter, this is a way to prove yourself,” Heflin said.

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Long Beach employee unions call for action after ambulance driver falls asleep, hits power pole

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.