ATCEMS looks at retrofitting ambulances to prevent theft

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following the hijacking of an Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (ATCEMS) ambulance and a separate ambulance theft in December, the agency tells KXAN several options are under consideration to prevent similar situations from happening again.

“The goal is to find solutions that provide additional protection from theft while not restricting the crew’s ability to access and move the truck at the scene,” Captain Rick Rutledge said.

Until December, ATCEMS said the last ambulance theft in recent memory was in the early 1990s, which prompted policy changes and training crews still follow today. Though a rare occurrence locally, the incidents caused them to think twice about potential procedural changes to protect crews, patients and equipment.The ambulance hijacking happened on Dec. 25 with a medic crew and patient outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). The medic crew was able to provide location, details and updates to law enforcement during the incident, and were not injured. The hijacker pulled off the road, stopped the vehicle and ran away. The suspect Rashard Williams, 28, was arrested the following week in Killeen. 

“There’s a lot of discussion over this call because it is so unusual and we’ll look for ways, kind of back-testing, to see if there’s anything we can do to prevent this,” Rutledge told KXAN at the time.

Now, there is a separation between the patient care and cab area of the ambulance, there are not separate locks, meaning the vehicle is either fully locked or unlocked.

“You can’t jump in the back and lock the front,” Rutledge told KXAN back in December, when asked whether it is protocol to lock the front driver and passenger doors when working on a patient in the back.

Rutledge had explained that reviewing procedural changes could take months, but as KXAN learned on Tuesdsay, ATCEMS has prioritized discussions on the matter.

“Obviously the December events are something that put this on the forefront of our mind,” ATCEMS Division Chief Wesley Hopkins said. “As we progress through the years to come we know that this may be a potential problem for us, so we want to find a long-term solution to help our crews work in a more safe environment.”

There’s technology available to wire into ambulances that adds switches or procedures to make it tougher to put the vehicle in drive.

“We’re looking at something that makes the truck secure and inoperable for our crews until they decide to actually utilize the ambulance,” Hopkins said.

ATCEMS has roughly 80 ambulances in eight different models. What complicates the process is those different models may require different systems, which is why ATCEMS wants to make sure that the processes are similar enough that when crews unlock and start different vehicles, there’s no confusion to that slows down response times.

The cost to retrofit each ambulance is just under $500. ATCEMS says it has found some suitable options and will be installing many “in the near future.”

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