ABC11 Investigates

Who's in that ambulance?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

If you are in an accident, or have a serious emergency medical problem, chances are you'll be counting on a paramedic or EMT to provide potentially life-saving assistance.

They're highly trained, committed to serving the community, and committed to saving lives.

"It's an amazing feeling. I thrive to do this. I enjoy coming to work with a smile on my face, good or bad or indifferent, I know I'm helping someone else, that's what I thrive on," offered Hunter Crowder - who works for Wake County EMS.

But while the majority of EMTs and paramedics represent the best of their profession, an I-Team review of disciplinary records for paramedics and EMTs across North Carolina for the past five years uncovered alleged behavior that may leave some wondering exactly who is in that ambulance coming to help.

We found multiple reports of misconduct in four key categories:

  • Cheating on exams
  • Criminal activity
  • Drug and alcohol problems
  • Misconduct on the job

The list of criminal charges that caused paramedics and EMTs to be stripped of their credentials includes:

  • Felony death by vehicle and driving while impaired
  • Felony indecent liberties with a child
  • Sexual exploitation of a minor
  • Child abuse
  • Felony embezzlement
  • Identity theft and credit card fraud

We asked Drexdal Pratt - a former paramedic who ran The North Carolina Office of EMS for 12 years, and was recently promoted to a new job at the Department of Health and Human Services as director of the Division of Health Service Regulation - about the charges.

"It's disappointing when anybody lets you down. For whatever reason, people are going to make mistakes. Some of them are intentional. Some of them are not," he offered.

Pratt said there is a system in place to weed out the bad apples.

"Our efforts have been focused to eliminate those types of individuals in our system, and I think we've been very successful in that," he said.

But ABC11 found that some medics with serious criminal records were able to get credentials. In Gaston County for example, a man who received an EMT credential in 2007 had a list of charges and convictions dating from the early 1990s to 2011 that include assault, domestic violence, incidents of a violent nature and incidents with a weapon.

Pratt told us the screening process has been improved since then.

"Prior to 2009, before we had a statute to conduct background checks, there were some of those people that slipped through the cracks that we were unable to detect. Once we learned about it, we took immediate action to correct that situation. Since 2009, they are filtered pretty well," he explained.

Last September, after a state investigation, the Gaston County EMT's credentials were revoked.

Our I-Team investigation also turned up allegations that there have been cases where medics provided inadequate medical care.

Josh Holloman, a division chief for Johnston County EMS, told us about alleged problems paramedic Rick Price had while working for the Princeton rescue squad.

"It seems to be an error in judgment and an inappropriate use of our protocols," said Holloman.

According to documents obtained by ABC11, Price "had several clinical deficiencies."

Price was sent in for more training which included an advance cardiac life support class. But Holloman said when a woman drove to the rescue squad and said she wasn't feeling well, Price and his partner loaded her into an ambulance. When they got to the hospital, she was in full cardiac arrest.

"We feel the paramedics in Johnston County have the appropriate training, have the appropriate tools to make correct decisions, and we trust them to do that," Holloman offered. "In this case, it didn't happen."

Documents show the medical director decided to fire Price for "failure to diagnose and treat a cardiac arrest."

Contacted by ABC11, Price said he regrets the outcome and if he'd known to do something different when the woman was in cardiac arrest he would have.

We asked Pratt if there could be others who are credentialed to be paramedics who are not up to speed with patient care.

"I think with the checks and balances in the system that we have, it's very unlikely for that to be happening," he said.

Pratt told us that since 2001, only 40 EMTs and paramedics out of 38,000 have been sent to a disciplinary committee. The allegations that sent them there included testing positive for cocaine, other narcotics, and alcohol. One even admitted to being a heroin addict after he was caught tampering with his drug test.

We asked Pratt if the state should be doing a better job of checking for drug use on the job.

"Our business is not checking for drug abuse or alcohol abuse," said Pratt. "We do evaluate them. We do background checks on them. We do not require blood work. We do not require any type of substance abuse test."

But Pratt told us he is confident EMTs and paramedics are doing a good job looking out for their patients and keeping an eye on each other.

"It's working well. People care about the community, their neighbors, and friends," said Pratt.

And paramedics and EMTs say the actions of one tenth of one percent of their numbers statewide should not be considered representative of all of them. They point to the tremendous and rewarding job they do across the state in emergencies.

"You go to work for 24 hours at a time and know you made a difference in someone else's life," said Crowder.

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