National News

B.C. ambulance driver fell asleep, coroner

By Keven Drews, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Driver fatigue played a major role in a crash that saw an ambulance jump a concrete barrier and plunge into a Vancouver Island lake, killing two veteran paramedics, says a B.C. coroner.

Two reports from the BC Coroners Service, released Wednesday, say ambulance driver Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, drowned in Kennedy Lake and paramedic Ivan Polivka, 65, died from massive trauma to his chest and head.

The Oct. 19, 2010 crash happened on Highway 4, a route the report describes as a hazardous, winding roadway linking the communities of Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino.

"(The) investigation uncovered no evidence of a reason for this occurrence, leading to the conclusion that the driver likely fell asleep at the wheel," said Coroner Lyn Blenkinsop, who wrote both reports.

She said the ambulance was in excellent condition and had no defects, and tests on the driver for alcohol or drugs found nothing relevant.

But Blenkinsop cited "fatigue" as a contributing factor in the death of Fuller, noting both paramedics had been off duty for only five hours when they were paged at 1:36 a.m. to transfer a patient from Tofino to Port Alberni.

On their return trip to Tofino, Fuller was behind the wheel and Polivka was sleeping in the back on a gurney, said Blenkinsop's report.

When the vehicle was on a stretch of road above the lake, the ambulance drifted into concrete barrier that was just 37 centimetres — or 14 inches — high located at the top of a 33-metre cliff, said Blenkinsop.

"The ambulance then rode the concrete barrier with both right side tires over the edge," she said. "Near the end of the barrier, the ambulance overbalanced and slipped off to the right, tumbling down the embankment to the lake."

The ambulance was later recovered under 10 metres of water. Fuller was found in the driver's seat with her seat belt on, while Polivka was found unrestrained and in the back of the ambulance.

Fuller was the unit chief at the Tofino ambulance station and had worked with the service for 23 years. Polivka was a veteran of 14 years.

Both were on-call, part-time employees who were paged when needed, said Blenkinsop.

Bronwyn Barter, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., CUPE 873, said the incident highlights the precarious work paramedics perform daily.

But she also questioned why it took so long to write and release the report, and questioned whether the word "likely," in reference to Fuller falling asleep, has any place in the document.

"Speaking with the family, they share the same view, and you know after four years of trying to put to rest a lot of things and getting past a lot of things this report is very upsetting to them," she said.

The BC Ambulance Service said in a statement that it conducted an internal investigation after the accident and made five recommendations, all of which have now been implemented.

The service said it informed the provincial government about the state of the highway, told staff about the need to use seat belts while in the back of ambulances, and raised awareness with drivers about the hazards of Highway 4 and similar highway sections.

It has also implemented policies and scheduling protocols for rest periods.

Blenkinsop said the Ministry of Transportation has improved the highway and installed new concrete barriers.

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