EMS Union: Assaults Rising Far More Than FDNY Statistics Have Indicated

Say Lax Response by Law Enforcement Discourages Reporting

By Bob Hennelly | The Chief | February 27, 2019

Assaults on Fire Department Emergency Medical Service personnel are a serious problem, according to testimony at a Feb. 25 City Council committee hearing. 

Between 2015 and 2018 the number of physical assaults by patients and the public on EMS members increased by almost 50 percent. Chief James Booth, who commands EMS, told the Council panel that in 2015, the first year for which he had statistics, there were 79 assaults. In 2016 the number was 97, and in 2017 it spiked to 166. Last year, 117 assaults were reported.

‘Violently Attacked’

“We have heard of a number of brutal incidents….of EMS workers being violently attacked while trying to provide medical care to patients,” said Council Member Joseph Borelli, Chairman of the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management. “EMS first-responders  are often on the front line of reporting for 911 calls for individuals with emotional disturbances or other mental-health problems.”

According to EMS union officials, the official FDNY data understates what their members are experiencing on the job. “If they are reporting 117 for 2018 I would say that the actual number is double or triple that because most of our members just don’t report it because experience has taught them nothing will come of it,” Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37 EMS Local 2507, said in an interview after the hearing. 

“Many of our members don’t report these assaults because of a lack of action by the [Fire] Department, the Police Department and the District Attorneys,” he told the Council panel. “It builds on a tradition of inaction.” 

When Mr. Borelli asked FDNY officials what the agency thought accounted for the uptick of patient attacks, Mr. Booth said it was either the result of “improved reporting strategies” or “additional assaults in that period of time.”

 A Rough December

The issue of violent attacks on EMS personnel made headlines after the March 2017 of EMT Yadira Arroyo in the Bronx. But based on the Council’s research paper prepared for the hearing, last December alone there were three instances in which EMS personnel were attacked, with one call on Dec. 12 in Brooklyn leaving three EMTs injured. 

In 2015, the State Legislature passed a bill establishing up to a seven-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of assaulting a member of an emergency medical service who was responding to a call. 

Last year, the FDNY put a decal on all of its ambulances warning the public to “keep your hands off EMTs or face a seven-year hitch.”

Mr. Borelli asked department officials if they knew how much the agency spent annually for training EMS workers on handling violent patients. While officials could not produce a figure, they said preparing EMS members for what they might encounter on the street was a top priority.

Teach ‘Verbal Judo’

“But we do put a lot of effort into making sure our training is consistent with the safety of our members,” testified Lillian Bonsignore, Chief of the EMS Academy. The training includes a course in “verbal judo” which focuses “on verbal de-escalation and controlling a scene verbally—as well as situational awareness.”

In addition, she said, all new hires go through the FDNY’s “street smarts” program, which instructs members “how to remain safe and aware in field situations” by making sure that even as they respond to the medical emergency, they position themselves so that they have “a way out at all times” and  ensured that their radio was available.

And if the precautions EMS workers have taken prove not to be sufficient,  she said FDNY instructors “do everything in our power during these presentations to emphasize retreat….We don’t want our people hurt, and we work in a very emotionally elevated situation many times.” 

Mr. Borelli asked union officials if there had been instances where EMS workers had been disciplined for physically defending themselves after they have been assaulted by the public. 

 Spat on, Fired for Reaction

“The short answer is yes,” said Michael Greco, a Local 2507 vice-president. He added that in one instance a member of the EMS was terminated for how he responded after a patient spit on him. In other cases, members that the union has represented have been fined, he said.

Due to the frequency of communicable diseases in the general population, being spat upon, or physically assaulted by a contagious patient, can have serious health consequences for EMS members. 

“What was not even stated today was that when our members are spit on they are put on a special cocktail of antibiotics,” Mr. Barzilay said. “It is a heavy dosage of antibiotics just in case you contaminated anything. That cocktail by itself makes our members sick. It is so strong and potent that our members have to be off sick for two to four weeks depending how long they have to stay on that cocktail.”

He continued, “You know this person is sick. He has got blood all over and now he spits in your face and it’s gotten into your eye, into your mucus membrane. Your life could be over  from that incident.”

And violence doesn’t necessarily have to be in the mix for a medical call to have fatal consequences for a member of the EMS.  After the hearing, Mr. Barzilay recalled the case of EMT Tracy Allen Lee, who died in 1997 of AIDS after she was infected while responding to a call she went on eight years earlier. She had been on the job just 17 months at the time of the incident.