Two Long Beach employee unions are calling for immediate changes to what they say are unsafe working conditions caused by fatigue after a Long Beach Fire Department ambulance crashed into a power pole early Sunday morning.
The crash happened around 5:30 a.m. Sunday in East Long Beach when the ambulance struck traffic signs and a power pole. The ambulance that crashed, which is based out of Station 16 at Long Beach Airport, was en route to a call when the driver and their partner fell asleep, according to people familiar with the incident.
The two occupants of the ambulance, both of whom are Fire Department employees, were transferred to a local hospital with minor injuries, according to Long Beach Police Department spokesperson Allison Gallagher. Gallagher said the investigation is ongoing.
Representatives for the city and Fire Department did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication.
Rex Pritchard, president of the Long Beach Firefighters Association, said that this is the first time in his 22-year career that someone had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed while on duty.
“At first, when I heard about it, I was scared to death,” Pritchard said. “As firefighters, we go on accidents all the time when people fall asleep and people get killed.”
“Then the fear turned into anger because everyone has known about this problem, and I’ve failed miserably to convince the Fire Department to act on it.”
While the employees are expected to recover, Pritchard said the ambulance is not drivable after the accident, and given how large and heavy the ambulances are, the department is fortunate that it didn’t collide with another vehicle on the road.
In a letter signed by Pritchard and Ashley Gunckel, a business representative for the International Association of Machinists, which represents ambulance operators, the unions called for the city to act on the fatigue issues that it says the city has known about for a long time.
“Clearly, the LBFD and others are aware of the current issues facing our members and the threat it is creating on our members and the public we serve, the letter said. “The recent crash of BLS 16 demonstrates what everyone has been aware of for quite some time, that the current working conditions of our members are unacceptable and unsafe.”
The letter referenced an article published by the Post in October that detailed complaints made to city consultants who were hired to find ways to make the department more efficient, which could include budget cuts.
The AP Triton report, which hasn’t been finalized and made public yet, along with individual interviews conducted by the Post, found that sleep deprivation was a major concern conveyed during interviews with consultants. Firefighters attributed sleep deprivation to increased call volumes (34% since 2010, not including marine personnel) and staff shortages made worse by injuries and leaves of absence.
For ambulance operators specifically, “holding the wall,” a term that describes when fire personnel are forced to remain at hospitals while those facilities find room for their patients, has made things worse.
Paramedics said that holding the wall can sometimes lead to hours of waiting at area hospitals, something that cuts into their ability to rest in between calls and forces other units that are not stuck at hospitals to respond to more emergencies across the city’s network.
“I would yell at my partner to stay up with me as we’re driving back to the station,” Rachel Ma, a paramedic who’s worked for the department for five years, told the Post in October. “They would fall asleep inside (the truck) because they know we’re going to get another call.”
Pritchard said that there’s no silver bullet to fix this issue, but hiring more ambulance operators and paramedics would help alleviate the strain. Proposed state legislation (Assembly Bill 40) that is working its way through the committee process in Sacramento could also help with the issue.
AB 40 was introduced in December by Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez, who represents Pomona. It would develop a statewide standard to offload patients from ambulances within 20 minutes.
“When residents call 9-1-1 in a medical emergency, they expect immediate help and the hospital to be ready, awaiting their arrival,” Rodriguez said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “It is unacceptable that this may not be the reality for everyone in our state.”
Natalie Gonzalez, president of the IAM local in Long Beach, said the staff shortages and fatigue issues extend beyond just the ambulance operators that are represented by IAM. Last year, Gonzalez advocated for pay raises for other IAM members like emergency dispatchers who also said they were overworked.
“It’s only a matter of time before another incident like this occurs and I need to make sure that city management is moving on this issue with urgency,” Gonzalez said. “We cannot wait so long in between responses from the city manager. We can’t wait months for this. They need relief now. They need rest now.”
City management said in October that a third phase of the AP Triton report was expected to be completed by the end of 2022 or early 2023. The third phase was ordered by the city to identify ways the department could increase revenues to better fund the department and make it more efficient.
The city and the Fire Department said they were also looking at ways to lessen the strain on its employees, including by using tele-health approaches to reduce the number of people that get transported to hospitals and a pilot program with Los Angeles County that would allow LBFD to transfer patients to alternate sites like sobering centers or urgent cares instead of hospitals.
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