Should EMSA Employee Records Be Open Or Closed?

Monday, February 6th 2012, 3:42 pm
By: News 9

An investigation by the Oklahoma Impact Team has revealed that almost a third of EMSA's paramedics and EMTs -- 70 out of 228 -- have first and last names that match those of convicted criminals.

EMSA officials insist that this is simply because the names in question are common, and not because their people actually have criminal records. But that claim is very difficult to substantiate without middle names, birth dates, or other identifying information, and EMSA is not willing to provide that.

The Impact Team requested full names and birth dates of all paramedics and EMTs that work for Oklahoma City and Tulsa's ambulance service provider. Citing privacy considerations, EMSA released first and last names only, and declined to provide birth dates.

The request was made under the Oklahoma Open Records Act following the discovery that a former EMSA EMT, who allegedly caused a fatal wreck in December, had a DUI on his record.

12/22/2011 Related Story: EMSA Paramedic Charged In Deadly OKC Crash Pleads Not Guilty

12/20/2011 Related Story: EMSA Paramedic Loses Job After Being Charged In OKC Deadly Crash

In a civil lawsuit filed against Paramedics Plus, the private nonprofit contracted by EMSA to supply its EMTs and paramedics, the widow of the man killed in that December 10 collision charges the company with negligence. Specifically, the suit argues Paramedics Plus was negligent for hiring Benjamin Samples, the EMT who was driving the ambulance, because Samples "had a driving record which included, among other things, a plea of guilty to speeding, DUI and open container."

Samples was fired ten days after the accident, and one day before being charged with negligent homicide by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

In a statement for the Oklahoma Impact Team, Samples' attorney, Ed Blau, said, "Mr. Samples intends to fight both his termination by EMSA and his pending misdemeanor charge. Mr. Samples acted within the scope of his employment, and his termination was an attempt by EMSA to avoid any additional negative publicity. Additionally, we believe once all the facts are known, Mr. Samples will be shown to be innocent of the criminal charge pending against him."

Read court documents on the civil lawsuit filed against Paramedics Plus

Samples' DUI conviction was in 2002, nine years before Paramedics Plus hired Samples.

But it is that sort of background information that OSU associate professor and open records expert Joey Senat believes the public should be able to obtain, under the Open Records Act, for all EMSA drivers.

"Do they have DUIs?" asked Senat. "Do they have driving offenses, other serious kinds of offenses?"

EMSA is a public trust, getting large subsidies each year from Oklahoma City and Tulsa. In 2011, the ambulance service provider received $8.5 million from Oklahoma City and $5.2 million from Tulsa.

The funds represent approximately one quarter of EMSA's annual revenues and help pay for ambulances, as well as, for the contract with Paramedics Plus and its employees.

"It shouldn't be a secret who these people are," said Senat. "As long as they're operating, they're running an ambulance service for a public trust, and those are publicly owned ambulances."

Accidents involving ambulances are very rare. According to data provided by EMSA, their ambulances make about 88,000 responses annually, and are involved in an average of 10 accidents per year. In the last three years, four people have suffered serious enough injuries in those wrecks that they've had to be transported to the hospital.

Neither EMSA nor Paramedics Plus would be interviewed for this story, due to pending court cases. In a statement, however, they said they meet "hiring standards that are fully consistent with and as stringent as the standards used by Oklahoma governmental agencies," and that all "[EMTs and paramedics] have passed a criminal and driving background check."

Read the full statement on hiring practices at EMSA and Paramedics Plus

But, if taxpayers want to check the criminal and driving backgrounds of these hires for themselves, the answer is "no." In a letter from Paramedics Plus COO Stephen Dean to the president of EMSA, Stephen Williamson, Dean noted simply, "Paramedics Plus is a private corporate entity and is not subject to the Open Records Act."

Read the full letter from Paramedics Plus COO Stephen Dean

A series of Attorney General opinions actually suggest the opposite is true --that the Open Records Act applies to private corporations that "have entered into contractual arrangements with municipalities to operate or maintain public property."

"Those employees are running public property. They maintain it. They operate it," argued Senat. "You can't hide public records by putting them in the hands of a private company."

EMSA officials insist they're not trying to hide anything, but rather are trying to protect their ambulance crews from danger. They point out that their EMTs and paramedics must frequently respond to incidents in high crime areas, and they believe that making their identities publicly accessible would only heighten the potential risk.

Our investigation found that in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, in the past two years, there have been 51 cases of assault on an emergency medical care provider.

But we also found that, in many of those cases, the emergency medical care provider who was assaulted was not an EMT or paramedic.

Critics say the argument is a red herring anyway, that police officers work in high crime areas and the public is entitled to know their identities.

Bottom line, Senat says, where public money is involved, the public has the right to personally inspect how, or on whom, it's being spent. Simply taking someone's word won't do.

"It's unfortunate, but it's also just a fact of life in this country. It's the way this country's built," explained Senat. "We the people should hold government accountable. We have to be able to check on who they are."