I feel terrible for Oahu’s hard-working paramedics and emergency medical technicians, as they struggle to zig-zag through traffic, when increasing numbers of drivers ignore them or wait until the last minute to get out of the way. Or worse, when selfish drivers speed up to try to zoom ahead of ambulances.

Those drivers aren’t thinking of those ambulances’ cargo: people for whom seconds or minutes may mean the difference between living and dying.

I recently saw a public service announcement by Honolulu Emergency Medical Services urging drivers to be more considerate by moving out of way for emergency vehicles.

I called EMS to find out if the problem has gotten worse.

An EMS crew shot this photo through their windshield of traffic failing to yield.
An EMS crew shot this photo through their windshield of traffic failing to yield. Honolulu Emergency Medical Services

“The problem has grown exponentially,” said Don Takara, a paramedic with 24 years experience. “As traffic has increased on Oahu, drivers’ patience has decreased and more of them refuse to move over to let us pass.”

Takara says some drivers may attempt to move aside but find it hard to maneuver in heavy traffic.

EMS spokeswoman Shayne Enright says some drivers mistakenly think they must cross over four lanes to get to the curb or a highway shoulder.

All drivers have to do is maneuver aside far enough to clear a path through which an emergency vehicle can pass.

Another problem: Some drivers don’t hear the emergency sirens until an ambulance is directly behind them, because the drivers’ sound systems are turned up high, their air conditioners are running full blast, and they are in cars designed to muffle outside noise, Takara says. 

And then there are the scofflaws who talk or text on their cell phones as they cruise down the freeway, oblivious to anything around them.

Incredibly, some drivers stick their arms out the windows and motion for the ambulance to drive around them or worse.

“They make gestures that are not civil. They sling the middle finger,” says Takara. “Maybe they are gesturing to tell us ‘you are number one.’ But the angry look on their faces tells me it is something different.”

Dean Nakano, the new Emergency Medical Services Division chief, has been an EMS professional for 35 years.

“It is terrible now that there’s more gridlock… A while ago I had to drive up the wrong side of Ala Moana Boulevard to get through traffic. Now there is gridlock on both sides of Ala Moana. It can be practically impossible to get through,” he says.

Nakano says the two-lane highway on Oahu’s North Shore is another place where it’s very difficult for emergency vehicles to maneuver, especially on weekends and big surf days.

It goes without saying that time is of the essence when EMS is trying to save the life of a critically ill or injured person.

EMS spokeswoman Enright says the  case of a swimmer who was attacked by a shark at Lanikai  Saturday is a good example of why it is so important for EMS to get through to a victim fast. “He had lost a large amount of blood and was in immediate need of emergency medical treatment. His life was dependent on the response of others.”

My friend Annette Kaohelaulii says that drivers who don’t move to let ambulances through should be punished. “They should get cited. They have no feeling for how difficult it is for ambulances to move through traffic and get patients to help they need fast, ” she says.

The State Judiciary Department says last year 24 drivers were cited and  appeared in Honolulu District Court  for either ignoring or following an emergency vehicle.

The fine for failure to move aside for an emergency vehicle is $97. The fine is also $97 for drivers who trail directly behind ambulances to try to gain clear passage for themselves through traffic.

By law, drivers must stay at least 500 feet behind an emergency vehicle. When an emergency vehicle stops to render service, a driver must park no closer than 500 feet away from the vehicle.

Some drivers think they are being clever by tailgating an emergency vehicle; but that can be very dangerous, says Enright, the EMS spokeswoman.

“They make gestures that are not civil. They sling the middle finger.” — Don Takara, paramedic

“We don’t know what is in front of us. We may have to stop suddenly. Then we might have two emergencies to handle when a drive rear-ends us,” she says.

Enright says some drivers today might be less responsive to sirens because they are frustrated by the high number of emergency calls.

“Drivers start to think, ‘Oh, this can’t be another emergency call. Oh, come on!’”

EMS statistics show an almost 30 percent increase in emergency calls over the last five years, to 87,550 calls last year.

Enright believes another reason some drivers don’t respect EMS personnel as much as they respect police officers or firefighters.

“People get upset with us because they are unaware emergency vehicles are manned by paramedics and emergency medical technicians often doing medical treatment as they rush patients to a hospital,” says Enright. “They are not merely ambulance drivers. Many people don’t understand this until something happens to them or a family member.”

Until 1971, Hawaii’s emergency medical vehicles drivers were called ambulance-service specialists. They were drivers with Red Cross first aid training. Their main job was to transport a patient to the hospital as safely and quickly as possible.

Now, every ambulance carries at least one paramedic and one emergency medical technician. An EMT must graduate from a six-month course at Kapiolani Community College. It takes two more years of on-the-job training for an EMT to become a paramedic.

During the drive to the hospital, paramedics are qualified to administer life-saving medicines to patients suffering from heart attacks, strokes and other serious ailments, and to intubate patients (inserting a tube to create an airway for breathing).

“Our goal is to never hear the words “ambulance drivers again. “ says Enright.

City and County EMS ambulance heads down Beretania Street near Chinatown with sirens and lights flashing. 4 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A City and County EMS ambulance heads down Beretania Street near Chinatown with sirens and lights flashing, June 4, 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

People fuming because they are stuck in traffic should be aware that EMS vehicles only turn on their sirens and lights when they are transporting critical or serious cases, she says. When a patient is considered stable, lights and sirens are kept off; then drivers on the road are not required to pull over.

“Because we know sirens can cause some drivers to panic and create unnecessary hazards, “ says Enright

Ewa beach resident Pat Monroe, who has had her own share of medical close calls, says, “It infuriates me when I see people refuse to move out of the way for an ambulance. When I am in front of an ambulance, I often have to struggle to get other cars to move aside so I can help clear a path.”

Monroe says she also gets upset when, as a pedestrian, she watches cars keep moving ahead, ignoring an ambulance. “I yell out at the drivers, ‘Make way. Move over. What if it was you in the ambulance? What if it was your mother?’”

That’s right. What it were you? What if it were your mother who needed only minutes more to get to the hospital to be revived? Move over to save lives; move over out of respect for the hard-working paramedics and EMTs.

“It takes a very special person to become an emergency medical provider,” says Enright. “ Not every one can do it. They see heart breaking and horrific things other people don’t want to see. They are dealing with tragedy.”

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