CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - We rely on them to save our lives in emergencies, but who's looking out for paramedics and EMTs when the people they're supposed to save turn violent?
Cleveland19 found in Cleveland, ambulances sometimes beat police to the scene, putting paramedics’ lives at risk in dangerous situations.
We have an exclusive interview with two paramedics assaulted on the job.
The call below came into 911 on December 23, 2018:
“There's a guy here attacking people, he's mentally ill, he's going crazy. How many people are injured? Me and another guy, he's sitting here bleeding in the ambulance,” the victim said.
Cleveland EMS paramedic Ethan Schilling and his partner were dispatched to that assault call at E. 140th Street and Kinsman.
But that assault call quickly escalated after Ethan himself was assaulted, trying to help the victim.
“I still have scars on my hand and my face, and I'll have reminders every time I look at it, of what happened,” Ethan said.
Ethan has been with Cleveland EMS for just under a year.
He just started working again last week after two months on paid leave off to recover.
That day, his EMS crew showed up on scene at E. 140th Street before police officers.
So they waited down the street.
“We have a bystander approach with a bloody face and say he was attacked,” Ethan said.
They got out of the ambulance to help and Ethan saw a man running right at him.
“I turn to him just in time to see a fist to my face,” he said.
“And I landed and I actually hurt my wrist.”
“I heard my partner Cody say, 'Ethan get up, Ethan get up,’” Ethan said.
“My radio's hanging off, just flailing around. My hand's all jacked up, it's bleeding it hurts,” he said.
Blood was dripping down his face.
Police showed up minutes later. Police body camera footage shows them approaching a naked man, walking in the road past cars and ignoring officer commands.
Ethan, who is usually the one treating patients, headed to the hospital once help arrived.
“I was diagnosed with a wrist sprain and a contusion of the left eye,” he said.
Antonio Rayshon White currently faces several assault charges, including assaulting an EMS worker, which is a felony.
Cleveland19 uncovered White is a repeat violent offender, and he pleaded guilty to assaulting an EMS crew in 2014.
One of the paramedics he attacked wrote a letter to the prosecutor’s office at the time, saying “I urge you to place him in a lock down facility.”
Another Cleveland EMS crew was attacked six months before Ethan.
Paramedic Spencer Huston says the call came into their unit that an 18-year-old male was under cardiac arrest.
“We quickly realized this was not a cardiac arrest,” Spencer said. “He was moving around, rolling around.”
The patient seemed to be cooperating as Spencer and his partner got him settled into the ambulance. But then the paramedics realized he was high on the drug PCP.
And the call quickly got dangerous.
“He became violent, he started unbuckling the belts that we had on the cot to get up,” Spencer said.
The patient grabbed scissors from the ambulance-- trauma shears.
“He immediately tried to stab me in the chest multiple times. So then I grabbed his hands and tried to hold him down. And he got one free and again kind of turned and tried to stab behind his head at my partner,” Spencer said.
It was close call for both of them.
Luckily his partner was wearing a ball cap, which deflected the scissors when Spencer says the patients lunged at his head.
Spencer was saved by his bullet proof vest, it was just slightly nicked.
It is mandatory EMS crews wear bullet proof vests on every call, according to the city of Cleveland.
“This is right where my neck sits, and these are the marks where he tried to stab me,” Spencer said.
Police arrested 18-year-old Joivally Turner for assault.
“My partner and I kind of sat down for a minute, took a deep breath and we were—'whoa, what just happened?’ Spencer said.
“We go on these assault calls every day, and more often than not, it's not violent. But the one time that it is, it changes things,” Ethan said.
Asking for help
Paramedics say the city can improve their safety on calls like this by changing its policy.
The Cleveland Association of Rescue Employees (CARE) is the union representing Cleveland EMS workers.
A union representative wrote a letter to EMS Commissioner Nicole Carlton in December, saying paramedics are blindly sent on "police calls, 911 hang ups and unknown calls without first confirming that an EMS unit was even needed" and "safe for EMS personnel."
CARE says their issue is not with police. They are looking for a new agency policy outlining when EMS crews should be directed to police calls by dispatch and what to do if paramedics show up before officers are on scene.
The union says this isn't new, the city has known about the problem since 2015.
Ethan and Spencer say they respond to calls like this too often.
“I've been dispatched multiple times, even in the last few weeks to known violent scenes, before police are even dispatched. And to me it just doesn't make sense. It's a lack of caring, a lack of concern for our well-being,” Spencer said.
“Why would you bring first responders, who don't have the training and the tools to mitigate a violent situation? And send them first? It doesn't make sense,” Ethan said.
CARE has been tracking calls where ambulances show up before police.
They showed us records of about 20 calls over the past several years where Cleveland EMS showed up on scene before officers.
A few of these cases resulted in assaults.
In October 2017, we found a call for an overdose that led to a paramedic being struck in the side of the face.
In September 2018, paramedics responded to an “unknown problem.” According to the records, they found a man lying on the sidewalk and no police presence. When they went to help the patient, people nearby warned he had a gun. No one was hurt in this case.
The city’s response
I spoke to Matt Zone, council member with the city of Cleveland and chair of the safety committee.
“We don't want our EMS workers harmed when they arrive on the scene, because after all they're here to save people's lives,” Zone said.
Zone says he's been looking into the issue since last fall, and he asked the public safety director to bring EMS and police together to look at new protocols.
“This is a high priority for the safety committee and city council, and this is something I'll be pursuing,” Zone said.
Cleveland19’s request for interviews with the director of public safety and EMS commissioner were declined.
Dan Williams, director of media relations for the Mayor’s office, sent us the statement below.
This is the same statement he sent us in January, when we did a different story on EMS and PTSD.
"The City of Cleveland takes the health, safety and welfare of our employees very seriously. The Department of Public Safety has resources to assist police, fire and EMS first responders in dealing with the unique nature of their jobs. Additionally, first responders have access to the same broad host of resources available to all City employees to assist them in managing the stresses of their personal and professional lives. Past and current EMS employees routinely take advantage of all of the free resources provided by the City. Due to on-going litigation, the City has no further comment."
Do paramedics feel safe?
For the paramedics on the front line, changes are not coming fast enough.
We asked Ethan and Spencer whether the city is doing enough to keep them safe.
“They are not grasping the seriousness of some of these things that are going on, some of the situations that are taking place,” Spencer said.
“It doesn't seem like they care, it doesn't seem like there's a big regard for safety,” Ethan said.
In both of their cases, they say it could have been much worse.
“And I'm just so grateful that it was able to turn out the way that it was. I'm still able to go home to my family at the end of every shift and be with my kids. It's a big part of—it's my entire life,” Spencer said.
EMS assaults across the country
Assaults on EMS workers continue to happen across the country.
This past December in New York City, three EMS workers were attacked while they were treating a patient.
Video showed an EMT getting punched in the face. The FDNY says the suspect who attacked them is related to the person they were trying to save.
The CDC estimates 2,600 EMS workers received hospital treatment in 2014 for violence on the job.
The agency says paramedics are more likely to be assaulted by patients than firefighters.
The CDC says signs on the back of ambulances stating that it’s a felony to assault a first responder may help stop patients from assaulting paramedics.
You'll find signs like that across Canada and the United Kingdom.
New York City just added that signage to their ambulances.