published Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Safety of 24-hour shifts for emergency workers questioned

A Walker County, Ga., ambulance driver who was charged with reckless driving after he crashed into an oncoming car was in the 11th hour of a 24-hour shift, records show.

Georgia State Patrol officials said Gerald Zigner was charged because he fell asleep at the wheel.

But Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn said the driver shouldn't have been tired, and he didn't think the 24-hour shift was a factor.

While most counties in Tennessee and Georgia operate on 24-hour shifts for firefighters and paramedics with 48 hours off in between, some area officials are beginning to question the safety of those shifts.

"As call volume increases ... you'll see more and more departments looking to make adjustments," said Dwayne Jamison, president of the Northwest Georgia Fire Chiefs Association.

Fatigued fire and emergency management drivers on roads is a growing concern among state fire chiefs and was brought up at this year's Georgia Fire Chief Association meeting, Jamison said. The 24-hour shift is a contributing factor in the number of wrecks that occur, Jamison said.

In Rockingham County, N.C., EMS stations are making the switch from 24- to 12-hour shifts, County Manager Tom Robinson said. But the process takes time because shorter shifts are costlier, he said.

"These days we have lots of calls during the evening, so there is no time to rest," Robinson said. "It's not safe for our workers, and it's not safe for the public."

In Tennessee, ambulances were involved in 132 crashes in 2009, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety. But those numbers do not indicate in how many crashes the ambulance driver was at fault.

The latest numbers available in Georgia show in 2008 ambulances were involved in 289 crashes, and their drivers more than likely were at fault in 149 of those, according to the state transportation department.

While ambulances are involved in wrecks, Ashburn said most of these accidents are because the public isn't paying attention to sirens or drivers get in the way of ambulances rushing to emergencies.

One of the policies put in place in Walker County to keep workers from getting too fatigued prohibits them from working another job the day before coming onto their shift, Ashburn said.

Because workers have two days between shifts, most paramedics and firefighters have part-time jobs for other services, officials said.

In Hamilton County, EMS personnel are encouraged not to work eight hours before reporting to their stations, 911 director Don Allen said.

Allen said the county has operated on a 24-hour shift since 1998, and officials are "pleased with that shift."

Continue reading by following this link to a related story:

Article: EMS driver charged with reckless driving

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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