12/21/2014

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Taxpayers paying to defend EMT accused of hitting on patient

Taxpayers paying to defend EMT accused of hitting on patient

SEATTLE -- A local firefighter/EMT is under investigation for allegedly crossing the line and hitting on a patient. 

Now a KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation has discovered that taxpayers are paying for him to defend his medical license.

When firefighters, EMTs, or paramedics answer a 911 call, it's often at the caller's worst moments --  maybe a heart attack, an accident or other emergency -- and it can leave a patient critically vulnerable. 

That's why those emergency health care responders must follow strict rules. One of the most important?  The rule about not using patient information to contact them personally.  In the words of Department of Health Spokesman Donn Moyer, "It's crucial."

But that's exactly what happened when a 25 year old South King County woman needed emergency help last year.  Her name is Lindsay and we've agreed not to use her last name.  She told us about her experience one morning when she was getting ready for work. 

"I kind of fell over," she said. "I couldn't breathe, and I don't know if you've ever had a panic attack but it kind of feels like a heart attack." 

When she called 911, firefighter/EMTs from South King Fire and Rescue found her laying on the bathroom floor. 

"They came in and I was just in little boy shorts and a sports bra and I kind of had a towel thrown over me," Lindsay said.

Lindsay says the EMTs checked her heart and stabilized her.  But she remembers the EMT's behavior on the way to the hospital.

"I remember he called me sweetheart a couple of times," she said. 

And she adds it made her feel uncomfortable. 

"I just thought that he was kind of flirtatious and joking around, but I was in no mood to really deal with it because I was just kind of freaked out and not feeling good," she said.

According to investigative records obtained by the Problem Solvers,  while Lindsay was still in the emergency room, she got a Facebook friend request on her cell phone just two hours after the firefighter/EMTs dropped her off. 

"And I remember my response to him was, 'Wow, how embarrassing. I was banking on the fact that I'd never have to see you again,'" she said.  

The EMT asked for her phone number through Facebook messaging, and she gave it to him not wanting to be rude to someone who'd just helped her during an emergency.  She says he immediately started texting her. 

"Like three seconds later he texted me back and was, like, sending me pictures of himself," Linsday said.

After two days, Lindsay called a halt, thinking,  "This is weird, this is inappropriate."

A friend of hers contacted South King Fire and Rescue, which launched an investigation. They found the EMT guilty of official misconduct, suspending him for one shift and putting him on one year's probation. 

But no one reported it to the Department of Health, which health professionals are required to do.  That is, no one reported it until Jerry Galland, a candidate for Fire District Commissioner, found out about it. 

Galland was flabbergasted by the allegations,

"We depend on them," he said. "They come to our home, they treat us in our most vulnerable situations and if we couldn't have the comfort in that, then we have a problem."

The Health Department is now investigating, and while they wouldn't talk about this case in particular, spokesman Donn Moyer had a clear message.

"Everything about an emergency response has the potential to be more intimate," he said, adding that the professional code of conduct absolutely requires first responders to maintain professional boundaries.

We are not identifying the EMT because he has not been charged with any crime, though we did try to talk with him.  But after quickly leaving his station one morning, his superiors showed up to tell us the EMT would not talk to us. 

One of those who approached our photographer is South King Fire and Rescue's Fire Chief, and he is also the EMT's father.

We asked the district if this EMT was getting special treatment because he's the chief's son.

"Well, I'm sure that what people would like to think," said fire district attorney Joe Quinn.

Quinn said there's been no special treatment and the chief has not been involved in his son's discipline.

The Problem Solvers examined the District's discipline records for the past five and a half years.   For 135 uniformed officers there are only 32 disciplinary actions. Four of them are for this EMT, which is more than any other employee. 

"Progressive discipline is supposed to correct, not punish, and if they finally get the message after three or four times and they still become a good employee, who cares if they have four?" Quinn said.

What also caught our attention is that the Board of five Fire Commissioners voted four to one to hire an attorney to represent the EMT in the Health Department investigation.  We asked the Commission Chairman why taxpayers should foot the bill. 

"We have a significant stake, significant investment in our employees, in our EMTs," Chairman Bill Gates said.  "And it's an investment we want to make sure we take care of."

Patient Lindsay was appalled to learn that her tax dollars would pay for the EMT's attorney. 

"That is insane," she said. "I can't believe that mine or anyone else's tax dollars would go to pay for his attorney to keep his license." 

Lindsay said she respects and appreciates the work of first responders, but she can't help but wonder what will happen if she should have to dial 911 again.

District officials say they don't have an estimate for the cost of the EMT's attorney and they have not set a limit on how much they, and ultimately the taxpayers, will pay.

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