Locking the ambulance is an absolute duty for EMS providers

Here's why locking the ambulance should be a policy for every agency and a habit for every EMS provider, like wearing a seatbelt


Danger in EMS can appear from some pretty unpredictable places.

Recently there have been news stories of EMS providers assaulted, threatened, and, all too commonly, EMS providers coming under gunfire. Sadly, these situations have become such that we must consider them predictable any time we arrive on the scene of any incident. There is no such thing as a routine call.

Still though, some situations seem to materialize right out of thin air and EMS providers are left to either react quickly or simply join the audience and observe whatever plays out. One such case comes to mind…

An EMS crew in North Dakota, was dropping a patient at a local hospital as they had done countless times before. On this day, unfortunately, while they were inside, a man stole the ambulance and led police on a high-speed chase before colliding with another vehicle and critically injuring the other driver. The stolen ambulance overturned and had come to rest on its roof when authorities approached and found that the thief had escaped on foot. He was later caught and arrested.

Stolen ambulance incidents, like this one, bring to mind a few issues:

Locking up the ambulance

Back in the old days, which some readers may recall, we arrived on scene, exited the ambulance, gathered our equipment and handled the call. We didn’t think much about locking the ambulance doors because who would steal an ambulance? That’s just crazy!

Well, it seems that crazy has become the norm and we are not back in the day. Stories of ambulance thefts appear in the news with greater frequency than ever before and there is nothing illogical about it.

EMS providers view ambulances as mobile trauma centers and intensive care units while some members of the public see a rolling pharmacy. Just on the other side of a thin layer of steel and plastic awaits a plethora of pharmaceutical delights and all of them have some street value. Ambulances are a soft target for criminals of all varieties.

The simplest solution to ambulance and drug theft is this: LOCK IT UP!

Since the early 1990s ambulances have come equipped with hidden lock switches, little toggles in the grill. The technology today is better and much stealthier. There really is no reason to leave an ambulance unlocked. I’m not suggesting the North Dakota crew left their unit unlocked, I don’t know.

I do know that an unlocked, unattended ambulance makes a soft target, a tempting crime opportunity, which brings us to the next potential hazard. Is the crew or agency liable for damages resulting from an ambulance theft?

Vicarious liability for ambulance theft damages

In the strictest legal sense, vicarious liability may not be the most accurate description, but, much like nauseas and nauseated, even if you don’t know the difference, you get the meaning when someone uses one in a sentence — especially when the sentence is followed by the action.

For our purposes here, let’s use vicarious liability to mean that you get in trouble for something someone else does because you allowed it to happen. In this case, you left your ambulance unlocked and unattended and someone jumped in it, drove away, and injured someone else.

Can a provider or the agency be held liable for the injuries caused by the thief? Maybe.

If the theft was completely unforeseeable, then it will be difficult to the point of impossible to hold you liable for resultant damages. Sometimes vehicles just get stolen.

On the other hand, if the theft of the ambulance was foreseeable and you did not take the reasonable steps to prevent it, the law could hold you at least partially liable for the damages that result.

What is foreseeable? Foreseeable is a bit of a squishy, subjective concept in the law. A plaintiff’s attorney will always argue that the damages were foreseeable even when it is obvious that they are not. Likewise, a defense attorney (like me) will pretty much always say that the damages were not foreseeable. Often it is left to the judge or jury to decide who is right.

Generally, though, it looks something like this: The hospital is in a nice, safe area, the ambulance parking area is well-lit, covered by visible and operational surveillance cameras, and there is a security guard watching over the area. Given those circumstances an ambulance theft is virtually unforeseeable.

If, however, the emergency department is in an area of town known to be not so nice and the area is not well-lit and there are no security guards watching over the ambulance parking zone, then of course it will be very easy to convince a judge and/or jury that a theft of an unlocked, unattended ambulance was foreseeable.

Bigger liability concerns

Crashing a stolen ambulance is only one of many possibilities and, frankly, it is not the worst. A far greater concern is what the ambulance carries, narcotics.

Let’s say a paramedic transports a patient to the hospital. The ambulance backs up to the doors, the patient is unloaded and wheeled inside and the ambulance remains unattended and unlocked. This happens thousands of times every day.

Let’s go on to say that, while the paramedics are inside, an opportunist seizes the moment and drives away in the unlocked, unattended ambulance.

But, it gets worse. The thief quickly dumps the ambulance and loots the contents, including all of the drugs. Within hours, morphine, fentanyl, dilaudid, versed, etomidate, succinylcholine, valium, ketamine and naloxone are on the street. Now you have a serious problem with law enforcement AND the licensing agency.

But still, it gets worse when the call comes in to dispatch for the 14-year-old who is in cardiac arrest having overdosed on the drugs stolen from your ambulance.

The rule is simple: you have an absolute duty to protect and preserve the equipment and supplies with which you are entrusted. Leaving them unlocked and unattended could easily be seen as a material breach of that duty for which any resultant damage would be per se foreseeable and thus you could be held liable.

Much like using Uber can exponentially reduce the likelihood of a DUI, locking the ambulance can be equally effective in preventing a myriad of potential negative outcomes for you and countless others. If locking the ambulance is not a policy, it should be and, more importantly, it should be a habit, like wearing a seatbelt or making a complete stop before driving emergency mode through a red light. 

About the author

David Givot, Esq., graduated from the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care (formerly DFH) in June 1989 and spent most of the next decade working as a Paramedic responding to 911 in Glendale, CA, with the (then BLS only) fire department. By the end of 1998, he was traveling around the country working with distressed EMS agencies teaching improved field provider performance through better communication and leadership practices. David then moved into the position of director of operations for the largest ambulance provider in the Maryland. Now, back in Los Angeles, he has earned his law degree and is a practicing Defense Attorney still looking to the future of EMS. In addition to defending EMS Providers, both on the job and off, he has created TheLegalGuardian.com as a vital step toward improving the state of EMS through information and education designed to protect EMS professionals - and agencies - nationwide. David is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. David can be contacted via e-mail at david.givot@ems1.com.

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