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Public Safety Commission questions path forward for EMS providers being assaulted

Wednesday, September 4, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After reports from EMS personnel raised questions about the frequency of field officer assault by patients, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services conducted an internal survey. The results showed that the majority of Austin EMS personnel say they’ve been assaulted on the job in the last two years.

“We certainly are being assaulted,” Selena Xie, the president of the Austin EMS Association, said at Monday night’s Public Safety Commission meeting.

Not only are the numbers of assaulted medics high, they are increasing. The results of the survey showed that both medics and communications professionals have been subjected to assault. Ninety-three percent of paramedics report being assaulted at some point in their career and 63 percent reported being assaulted more than once in the last two years.

Xie told the Austin Monitor that instances of assault are underreported in the EMS. With no internal reporting system for medics who have been assaulted, she said the survey that was released this month is the only current reported data from the department. Only 47 percent of field personnel and 52 percent of communications personnel within the EMS department responded to the survey.

As for its accuracy, “I think the numbers are probably even higher,” Xie said. “I think that in any medic’s lifetime they will be assaulted.”

Kevin Harner, a paramedic with Austin EMS who was assaulted this past June, explained that with no tracking system, there is little recourse for medics and minimal ability to comprehend the prevalence of the problem. He said that the only option for reporting an assault is to file an on-the-job injury report, but those forms are only necessary when further medical assistance is required or an employee is looking to file a workers’ compensation claim.

Xie told commissioners that in order to offer an option to medics who wish to report an assault, the EMS Association developed a form that both communications and field personnel can fill out and send to superiors within the department. “We’ve already had 10 people turn in the form,” she said.

However, she explained to the Monitor that it is the EMS department’s responsibility to track such incidents and that EMS should expedite developing a system to report and track cases of assault.

Another concern is the way in which police respond to these incidents in the field. When a medic requests assistance from the police for an assault, the request comes through dispatch as a Code 3. Code 3 is the highest-priority call and is used for a multitude of incidents including animal attack, medical emergencies and crowd control.

If there were to be a specific code for medics in distress, Xie said, “we would see a different kind of response.”

She related several anecdotes of medics being questioned by dispatchers on how to direct calls while being attacked, and one case where a bystander had to yell into a medic’s radio that the medic needed help.

Accordingly, she asked the commission that the Austin Police Department consider implementing a call type to indicate that a medic is down and in need of immediate assistance.

“If we need to make changes, we’ll do that immediately,” Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said. “It shouldn’t take that long.” The police department agreed that it would look into designating a new call type.

Commissioners expressed their support of designating a specific call type for medics in need of immediate police assistance due to an assault.

Xie told the Monitor that she will follow up in a month to determine whether the departments have implemented any new call coding or reporting documentation.

Commissioners Rebecca Bernhardt and Daniela Nuñez were absent from the conversation.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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