Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Crash prompts look at response

City sent two ambulances

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

While investigators wait to examine a shuttle bus to determine why it lost power and crashed Sunday hurting 22 riders, city officials are working to figure out a way to find money to get more ambulances on city streets.

Read the Enquirer report, "You call, we haul," which explains when an ambulance must respond.
Inspectors must wait four days until they can examine the 1999 white Legacy bus, which stalled as it dropped off passengers during the Over-the-Rhine Summer Tour of Homes. Without power, investigators say there was no air pumping into the brakes, making them inoperable. The bus slammed into a vacant building in Mount Auburn.

Two Cincinnati fire department ambulances were available to take injured passengers to hospitals Sunday. At least three passengers remained hospitalized Monday.

The bus was standing-room-only before Rob Bucher, of Delhi Township, got off at the top of Mulberry Street.

"There was no cough, no sputter - all of a sudden he just had no brakes," said Bucher.

"There was a guy waiting to get on," Bucher said. "He was like, 'Hey!' He thought the driver just forgot him."

The Ohio State Highway Patrol found no violations during an annual inspection of the bus less than three weeks ago, according to inspection records kept by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Most commercial vehicles, including shuttle and tour buses, are required by state law to be inspected yearly. The records indicate the bus is owned by Mike Albert Ltd., but operated by Parking Company of America in Cincinnati.

The city's inspection of the bus during the accident investigation must wait for another four days because there was blood inside from passengers. City policy says officials must wait five days to allow for possible blood-borne pathogens to deteriorate, said Lt. Robert Hungler, supervisor of the traffic investigation unit.

After the city's inspection, police will take all their findings, as they do in all cases, to Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen's office for review and a decision on any possible charges.

Twenty-two people were taken to several hospitals after the 3 p.m. accident at Mulberry and Vine streets.

Driver Charles Stacy, 56, of Mason, appeared to be most seriously hurt, officials said. But he was treated and released from University on Sunday.

City has 6 ambulances

In Cincinnati, firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians and about 20 percent are trained paramedics. The Fire Department operates the city's ambulance system with six ambulances and four paramedic units.

Mayor Charlie Luken said Monday that City Council members could vote by the end of the month to hire a consultant to help determine if Cincinnati has enough ambulances and if they're being used efficiently.

"The problem is, of course, our budget is constrained," Luken said. "We just don't have money. We're scrapping and looking at a budget in 2005 that might even include some layoffs in nonsafety areas."

Current policy dictates emergency crews must transport virtually anyone who requests to go to a hospital. Some emergency workers refer to themselves as a taxi service, or the policy as "You call, we haul." Some people abuse the system, calling 911 for things like menstrual cramps and babies crying.

That, firefighters say, means they can be tied up on those calls - and associated paperwork - when a more important call comes.

The Fire Department tried a new protocol for two months earlier this year that set guidelines for what minor maladies did not require ambulance involvement. The protocol, however, set guidelines for conditions that required transportation and actually led to more runs, and was dumped after the pilot project. Firefighters are working under the old policy.

Councilman David Pepper said his staff is studying how Cincinnati's number of ambulances compares with that of other cities.

Calls started coming in to 911 on Sunday from passersby, other tour participants, even the riders themselves, according to police reports.

"There's a lot of bleeding people on the bus," said Tristan Levy.

Rider Janet Eichberg, 56, called 911 from her cell phone: "We do have a fire squad - one here. But we need more."

Reports indicate the bus was going about 40 mph when it crashed.

When District Chief Alan Sedam arrived at Sunday's accident, he was told there were two ambulances and two paramedic units available - not enough for all the patients. He called for help from Hamilton County, which sent ambulances from Golf Manor and Woodlawn.

Lt. Joe Arnold, president of the firefighters union, said Sunday's crash should not be used to illustrate a problem with the city's ambulance service. No city can be expected to handle that many victims without help from neighboring departments.

"There are a lot of times when we have no ambulances available," he said. "This time, at least we had two. We're still doing a helluva job, all things considered.''

Reporter Kevin Aldridge contributed. E-mail jprendergast@enquirer.com

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