Vt. Fatal Crash Spotlights Dangers with Ambulance Services

December 5, 2007

An ambulance crash that killed a passenger and seriously injured an emergency medical technician last week in Vermont spotlights two major concerns in many serious ambulance crashes: questionable driving and hazardous patient compartments.

The hospital-bound ambulance slid off a snowy highway and rolled over Wednesday, killing Mary Catanzarite, 80, of Massena, N.Y. EMT Michael Guthrie, 39, of Massena, N.Y., was seriously injured.

Police say speed and slippery roads were factors in the crash.

The driver, who was wearing a seat belt, was not hurt. Catanzarite and Guthrie were not belted, according to Vermont State Police Trooper Philip Wagner.

Local and national experts say ambulance services can take steps to improve driving, but making the ambulances safer for patients and EMTs is more of a challenge.

Dan Manz, head of emergency medical services at the Vermont Department of Health, said ambulance workers now can administer many lifesaving procedures at the scene, cutting down on the need to speed to a hospital.

“Today, in 2007, given the capabilities of every emergency medical service in Vermont, the idea of ‘let’s apply the lead foot to save this person’s life,’ I don’t think is necessary,” Manz said.

Jim Finger president of the Vermont Ambulance Association and chief executive administrator of the Regional Ambulance Service in Rutland, said drivers in his service are now required to stop at red lights. They also travel with a computerized system that warns them if they’re speeding to or stopping too fast.

The compartments for patients are a great environment to provide emergency care but because of that, “they are dangerous when an ambulance is involved in a crash,” Manz said. “Cabinets break off. Cardiac monitors go flying. There is heavy equipment in use that is very difficult to secure.”

Installing airbags in the compartments and harnesses for emergency personnel have been discussed. Many services also secure their equipment or have installed cloth nets where the EMT rides, said Larry Wiersch, of Allentown, Pa., a leader in ambulance safety with the American Ambulance Association.

But he thinks EMTs could wear seatbelts more often. “The majority of the time, you aren’t doing patient care that requires you to be standing, so you could be belted,” he said. “Human behavior is the most correctable factor — at least for right now.”


Information from: The Burlington Free Press,

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