Calif. firefighters hospitalized over ambulance exhaust fumes

The smell has sent some firefighters – up to 10 in recent weeks – to emergency rooms to be evaluated for carbon monoxide poisoning

By Anita Chabria
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Six diesel ambulances with systemic exhaust problems have sickened Sacramento firefighters enough to send them to local emergency rooms as patients, the firefighters union and city said Friday.

The city of Sacramento has removed those ambulances from the firefighting fleet and is planning to replace another eight units that may develop a similar problem.

Until new ambulances arrive, which could take months, the city has “borrowed” two units from the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which covers areas of Sacramento County outside the city, and will rely on a resource-sharing agreement with that agency to fill gaps in service caused by the lack of ambulances, said acting Sacramento Fire Department Chief Chad Augustin.

Since January 2014, firefighters have complained about the six diesel-powered ambulances manufactured by Ford that have had exhaust enter both the driving compartment and the rear passenger area at times, according to Fire Department spokesman Chris Harvey. The issue was discovered when firefighters complained about a diesel smell when riding in the units.

The smell has sent some firefighters – up to 10 in recent weeks – to emergency rooms to be evaluated for carbon monoxide poisoning, according to Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522 union spokesman Roberto Padilla.

Prior to the recent rash of possible exposures, the department had “less than 10” firefighters report feeling sick from the smell from February 2014 through November 2016, Augustin said.

Augustin attributed the spike in incidents to increased outreach from the department to personnel about the problem after a possible exposure was reported over the summer. He said the department has also sent any firefighter who has been in an ambulance and has had symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure to an emergency room for evaluation.

“If they are in an ambulance, we send them to the hospital to get a blood draw and monitoring,” he said.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause headaches, dizziness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High levels of exposure can be deadly.

Augustin said that “a couple” of the firefighters that have gone to an emergency room had carbon monoxide levels that were “on the very high range of normal ... but nobody has gotten admitted and nobody has gotten any other care except for lab work.”

Harvey said Cal-OSHA inspections found no detectable carbon monoxide in the units, but carbon monoxide monitors were placed in them as a precaution.

Monitors that can track data over a period of hours to provide better insight into when and why the issue occurs have been ordered and are expected to arrive next week, Augustin said.

The department has worked on multiple mechanical fixes for the issue over the years, but has been informed by Ford that there is no mechanical fix possible, Harvey said. Ford told the department that the problem is caused by improper use of the ambulances, he said.

The diesel engines in the trucks were designed to be “self-cleaning” through extended driving time, and such use would prevent the exhaust smell, Harvey said. However, in Sacramento, the units mostly make short trips of less than 2 miles and spend time idling at calls.

“They don’t do well in situations where they are idling a lot or driven repeatedly at short distances,” Harvey said.

Calls to Ford were not immediately returned Friday evening.

The increase in reported incidents from fire personnel prompted the city to remove the six units from service and order gas replacements last month. Those new units will cost the city $886,404, according to city documents.

Sacramento City Council members will be asked on Jan. 5 to replace eight other diesel ambulances that are newer. Those vehicles have not yet exhibited the exhaust problem, but the city fears they may do so, according to interim City Manager Howard Chan.

The cost to replace those units is expected to be about $1.15 million. Ambulances are normally built to order and can take more than 200 days to deliver, according to Chan. But the city is working with a distributor, Braun Northwest Inc., that has five “demo” ambulances already in production, and three additional demo units planned for completion by June 2017. The city plans on buying all eight of those units, pending approval from the City Council.

“For me personally, employee health and safety are a top priority,” Chan said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he supported Chan’s decision to replace the diesel units.

“It’s basic,” Steinberg said. “This is not a cost issue. This is a safety issue and it’s totally appropriate and necessary that the fleet be replaced.”

Chan said he has asked the city attorney to evaluate whether Ford may be liable and research any legal action the city could take to recoup costs.

Augustin said he thinks “this is going to end up becoming a problem not just in the city of Sacramento” but for other urban departments that are using the Ford diesel trucks.

Padilla said the ambulance issue is indicative of a “larger issue” of inadequate safety equipment for firefighters in Sacramento. On Friday, the union posted on Facebook about its safety concerns, including claims that some personnel have expiring oxygen tanks on breathing apparatuses and lack other protective gear.

Copyright 2016 The Sacramento Bee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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