Driving lessons learned from a medic's death

Ambulance crash tragedies like this one are a stark reminder of the danger of ignoring high-risk behavior


On January 4, 2019 Jim Love, author of this article from 2011, wrote to EMS1 asking us to remember Josh Hanson and continue to learn from his tragic death. Jim wrote: "We should not lose sight of life and career lessons from the past when that same behavior exists today. Safety science teaches us that we get lulled into a false sense of security when we do something that is supposed to be wrong but nothing bad happens. We do it again, as do others, and nothing bad happens until it does. Eventually, these at-risk behaviors will catch up to us. Chose life.  Your career is not worth your life or that of another."

This article, originally published November 10, 2011, has been updated 

Around 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day 2001, my pager, cell, and home phone went off at the same time. I answered my cell and learned that one of our units had overturned and possibly one person was dead.

As the regional safety manager, I had to respond. The location of the ambulance crash was, on a normal day, a couple of hours away. But being Thanksgiving, the roads were overcrowded. Various details of the event were revealed en route.

A memorial for Josh was established at the site of the ambulance crash. (Photo/Jim Love)
A memorial for Josh was established at the site of the ambulance crash. (Photo/Jim Love)

Our own Josh Hanson, EMT, RN was dead. Our vehicle rolled over; the medic, who was driving, was partially ejected. His partner was also injured, though the injuries were reported to be non-life threatening.

This was such a catastrophe that even the town's mayor responded. By the time I arrived a critical incident stress debriefing was underway. The town and my company were both numb with shock.

What we learned

Over the days and weeks that followed we learned a lot about this collision and those involved.

  • We were responding hot to a nursing home for a patient in cardiac arrest.
  • We failed to stop at a red light.
  • Our crew was not wearing seat belts.
  • Josh's partner had never defibrillated a patient and Josh was hoping to beat other responders to the scene so she could have this experience.
  • Josh was married.
  • Josh was said to have a constant smile and an infectious personality that everyone liked and respected.
  • His partner was never able to return to EMS. She made several attempts to return to duty, after both in-and outpatient therapy, but as soon as the red lights and siren came on she became unable to complete the call.

A no-seat belt culture 

We also learned that this crew routinely did not wear seat belts, and routinely did not stop at red lights and stop signs. We learned that this was the existing culture at this operation and that it had been passed from one generation to the next. Josh and his partner both were driving instructors.

Finally, we learned that many levels of the organization were aware of this practice and either condoned these at-risk behaviors or looked the other way.

How to honor Josh Hanson

To best honor Josh's memory we must learn from this tragedy and ensure that this does not happen again:

  • EMS vehicles must stop at red lights and stop signs, and there must be a local, enforced policy that has consequences for failure to comply.
  • EMS responders must wear seat belts, and there must be local, enforced policy that has consequences for failure to comply.
  • Management is not allowed the freedom to look the other way and if caught doing so must sacrifice control of their team.
  • Peers must also speak up to identify at-risk behavior.
  • Agencies must have priority dispatch in effect.

We truly need to know our existing safety culture and to know if it matches our vision.

Josh lived briefly after the collision — just long enough to know what had happened. Josh's partner, as well as management and coworkers, are still alive and must live each day knowing they could possibly have prevented this loss.

I never knew Josh, though I wish I had.

"Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome,” is a common definition of insanity. If we as EMS providers continue to run red lights without due regard, if we continue not to buckle up, this experience will be repeated.

We cannot look the other way, and we cannot pretend that at-risk behavior does not produce far-reaching consequences. We cannot take the easy way out and do nothing. We must take action and we must speak out and speak up.

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