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BGA, 2 Investigators: Ambulance Breakdowns Could Prove Deadly

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Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

Pam Zekman Pam Zekman
Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Pam Zekman serves on CBS 2 Chicago’s...
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CHICAGO (CBS) – It could have been a matter of life or death last month when a city ambulance broke down while rushing a gunshot victim to a hospital for emergency care.

How could that happen? Pam Zekman and the Better Government Association investigate.

Last month 22-year-old De’Angelo Simmons was shot in the abdomen and collapsed in front of his home at 80th and Manistee.

“Everybody thought everything was gonna be ok because he was talking, breathing good,” said De’Angelos brother, Ronald Holly.

“He was ready to get up.”

“I just told him to lay down and be still and the ambulance was coming,” said De’Angelo’s mother, Kimberly Simmons.

A fire engine got there at 6:15 p.m. and a paramedic on board began treating Simmons, according to a fire department spokesman.

Two minutes later Ambulance 55 arrived, administered care, and then took off for Northwestern Hospital, more than 12 miles away. Fire department spokesman Larry Langford said “it was a judgement call” by personnel who thought the ambulance could get downtown faster at that hour than to a closer trauma center.

On route Simmons had a cardiac arrest with no pulse or blood pressure detected. Paramedics worked to revive him and then had another emergency at Lake Shore Drive near the Randolph St. exit.

“Our ambulance just broke down,” a paramedic radioed in.

“We just lost power, shut off, we cannot get it started.”

The breakdown was later found to be a fuel injection system failure.

It took Ambulance 11 eight to 11 minutes to get to the scene, transfer Simmons and continue on to Northwestern Hospital.

Simmons mother says she was never told about that until we contacted her and now, she says she will always wonder, “would my baby have lived if the ambulance wouldn’t have broke down?”

Doctors tell us Simmons had little or no chance for survival even without a breakdown because of the seriousness of his wound and the timing of the cardiac arrest.

Nonetheless, Andy Shaw, of the Better Government Association says the case is a warning for the city.

“One of these days someone is going to die because of an ambulance breakdown,” Shaw said. “We’re not saying it happened in this case but it’s going happen.”

Sources told CBS 2 and the Better Government Association that ambulance breakdowns are a serious problem. They sent photos of a few examples from last year including an ambulance with a door hanging by a hinge.

“A paramedic could fall out of the door of that ambulance and be seriously injured or killed,” Shaw said.

Other photos show the wheels fell off two other ambulances, one with a patient inside. A spokesman for the Fire department said that patient was not adversely affected.

Under the freedom of information act we asked for the city’s breakdown reports for its entire fleet since January 2012. Our request was denied by the city, saying it was an “overly burdensome” request.

We were given 800 pages of breakdown and repair reports for the four ambulances in this story. They showed work needed to fix things like emergency lighting, tire and engine failures to name a few.

“It’s critically important that the Chicago fire department have a fleet of reliable ambulances,” Shaw said.

David Reynolds, Commissioner of the City Department of Fleet and Facilities Management, said because the ambulances get a lot of “heavy use they get more repairs than you might expect for your personal vehicle.”

“We do our best to maintain them,” Reynolds added, “but any mechanical piece of equipment could break down.”

The ambulances undergo preventative maintenance to prepare for state safety inspections every six months, Reynolds said, “which means they are safe to use.”

“I’m disappointed that we have any mechanical failures of course,” Reynolds said, “that my department is doing everything that we can to keep those vehicles safe and mechanically functional as possible.”

The city is in the process of buying 25 new ambulances to replace the oldest of about 100 ambulances in the fire department fleet.

Not soon enough for De’Angelo Simmons mother who said, “They’re taking chances with people’s lives.”