Rapid response: Learning from the tragic death of FDNY EMT killed by ambulance hijacker

How can we begin to mourn, make sense of and learn from the tragic line-of-duty death of EMT Yadira Arroyo?

What happened: FDNY EMT Yadira Arroyo, 44, a 14-year veteran of the department and mother of five, was killed Thursday night in the line of duty. A man, alleged to be intoxicated and emotionally disturbed, was riding on the back bumper of the FDNY ambulance Arroyo was driving to a call. Arroyo stopped the ambulance, after being alerted by a bystander. After confronting Jose Gonzalez, 25, outside of the ambulance, Gonzalez is reported to have gained control of the ambulance, first dragging Arroyo and then backing up and running over her.

EMT Arroyo was transported to Jacobi Hospital in critical condition where she later died from her injuries.

Arroyo's EMT partner was initially reported as also being in critical condition. Follow-up reports clarify that she was in the cab of the ambulance attempting to fight off the suspect. She suffered minor injuries.

EMT Yadira Arroyo.
EMT Yadira Arroyo. (Photo/FDNY)

Why it's significant: This line-of-duty death is indescribably saddening and tragic. EMS personnel everywhere are regularly threatened by civilians who are intoxicated, mentally ill or set on perpetrating an unprovoked act of violence.  

Top takeaways for EMS leaders, providers: In the wake of any line-of-duty death, EMS leaders and providers respectfully mourn the loss of a colleague. We also have a responsibility to ask ourselves how we can prevent a similar incident from happening in our jurisdiction.

1. Prevent unauthorized ambulance operation

Installing technology, implementing policies and adopting engineer controls to prevent unauthorized ambulance operation has to be a high priority for EMS leaders and stakeholders. Ambulance theft from incident scenes and hospitals is common in the United States. Weekly, if not more often, EMS1 reports stolen ambulances. Taking an ambulance most often seems to be a crime of opportunity, perpetrated by those who are usually intoxicated, mentally ill or both.

Since ambulance thefts are so frequent, we mostly report on the incidents that result in significant property damage or injuries. In 2015, a psychiatric patient managed to grab the steering wheel of an ambulance. Three people were injured in the crash.  

About once a year, an ambulance theft results in a fatality. Also in 2015, a California woman stole an ambulance before crashing it into a semi-tractor, killing herself and the semi driver. In 2014, a Maryland ambulance crew was assaulted by a man who stole their ambulance. He killed one person and injured several others in subsequent crashes.

2. Plan, practice to escape violent encounters

We have an obligation to learn from this incident as a way of honoring EMT Arroyo. After a period of mourning and grieving, have a discussion with your partner or with the personnel you supervise about how to prevent, respond to and escape from different types of violent encounters. How will you respond to a bystander reporting a tailboard rider? If a bystander attempts to enter and gain control of the ambulance what will you do?

For EMS leaders, it is equally important to discuss with personnel your expectations of them. How important is it for your EMTs and paramedics to attempt to stop the theft? How does location and other factors impact the level of risk they should take to stop the suspect? The decision to fight is not easy. An ambulance, unlike a stolen first-in bag, can instantly become a weapon aimed at EMS providers and innocent bystanders.

3. Be ready to fight for your life

EMT Arroyo and her partner transitioned in a few seconds from what was likely an annoyance or inconvenience — pausing their patient response because of a tailboard rider — to fighting for their lives. I have no expectation for what they should have done or could have done differently.

A video of the incident, which we have chosen not to share or embed, shows the frightening pace of this tragedy. A police officer and bystander joined the other EMT in apprehending the assailant and gaining control of the ambulance, which had become stuck in a snowbank.

It is the nature of EMS, firefighting and law enforcement that mundane and routine can be suddenly interrupted by violence. For example, yesterday a New York man was arrested for assaulting a paramedic in the patient care compartment. Preparing ourselves or the personnel we supervise with a combination of physical and mental readiness, administrative policies and engineering controls is a significant challenge that must be part of our initial EMS education, emphasized in ongoing training and stressed in roll-call briefings at the start of every shift.

What’s next: The investigation into this incident will reveal more details in the days, weeks and months ahead. Take a moment to learn about EMT Arroyo and offer your support to her family, friends and FDNY colleagues.  

Be intentional about preventing unauthorized access to your ambulance while the memory of her death is top of mind. But also put in motion the acquisition and installation of engineering controls and technologies to make ambulance theft impossible and hijacking prevention automatic. 

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Here are some other EMS1 articles on violence, behavioral emergencies and ambulance theft.

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