DALLAS -- They answer the call 24-7, often risking their own safety to rescue the sick and injured and rush them to the hospital. But some paramedics have been more predator than hero.
Over the past 18 months, at least 129 ambulance attendants across the U.S. have been accused of sex-related crimes on duty or off, an investigation by The Associated Press found. Some of them molested patients in the back of an ambulance.
"It's a dream job for a sexual predator," said Greg Kafoury, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who represents three women who were groped by a paramedic. "Everything is there: Women who are incapacitated, so they're hugely distracted. Medical cover to put your hands in places where, in any other context, a predator would be immediately recognized as such."
Across the U.S., emergency medical technicians have been accused in recent months of such crimes as rape, soliciting minors over the Internet and possession of child porn, according to an AP survey of the state agencies that oversee those professions.
Exactly how many of these EMTs were alleged to have committed their crimes on the job is unclear. But some of more shocking cases include:
- A Standish, Mich., paramedic sent to prison in March for molesting a girl who was on her way to the hospital after she was injured at her 15th birthday party.
- A Pinellas County, Fla., paramedic arrested in July after he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman in an ambulance en route to a hospital.
- A Chester County, Pa., paramedic sentenced in July to up to 20 years in prison for engaging in sex and providing alcohol to teenagers he befriended through their interest in emergency medical service.
- A Copperas Cove, Texas, paramedic awaiting trial in January on charges he exposed and touched an 18-year-old accident victim's breasts while pretending to tend to her injuries.
- A Chattanooga, Tenn., EMT accused in a lawsuit of giving a 30-year-old woman an extra dose of morphine and then completely undressing her in the back of an ambulance even though her injuries were minor.
State health officials in 23 states reported receiving sex-related complaints involving EMS workers. New York reported the most complaints - 17. Thirteen of the complaints were substantiated and resulted in workers losing their certification. Texas reported 13 complaints, Massachusetts 11 and Virginia 10. No breakdown was immediately available showing how many of those allegations involved sexual misconduct on the job.
Several EMS officials said the number of complaints is troubling but does not necessarily point to an industrywide problem. They noted that the profession employs nearly 900,000 people in the U.S.
"That number in and of itself doesn't shock me, knowing the number of providers we have in the country," said Steve Blessing, state EMS director in Delaware and president of the National Association of State EMS Officials. "Is even one case tolerable? I think most state directors would say no. But we're bound by reality here."
In Portland, paramedic Lannie Haszard was sentenced to five years in prison in August after pleading guilty to five counts of attempted sexual abuse. Haszard, 62, was charged with inappropriately touching four female patients while they were being taken by ambulance to hospitals.
Three of the women have sued Haszard and American Medical Response, his employer at the time. The lawsuits contend that the company, which operates ambulances in 40 states, failed to react to previous complaints about the paramedic's conduct.
Haszard's behavior came to light last December when a 28-year-old single mother of three, Royshekka Herring, told police that he touched her genitals while she was en route to the hospital for emergency treatment of a gastrointestinal condition.
In a recent taped deposition, Herring's voice shook with emotion as she described how a nurse tried to convince her that Haszard was probably performing an abdominal exam.
"I started yelling at her, because I didn't feel safe," Herring testified. "Somebody I never expected to touch me touched me."
A spokesman for American Medical Response had no comment on the case.
Former Dallas Fire Chief Steve Abraira suggested ambulances carry three workers. Ambulances usually have two - one in the front, one in the back.
"If there's a person predisposed to do something wrong, there's nobody there to witness or discourage that individual from doing something," said Abraira, now the fire chief in Palm Bay, Fla.
Twenty-eight states do not automatically bar known sex offenders from working as EMTs, the AP found.
Although most insist they would rarely, if ever, allow sex offenders to work those jobs, the AP found that Texas has knowingly allowed eight, Louisiana two and Maine, Virginia and North Carolina one each. There is no indication any of those people were accused of sexual misconduct after being allowed to work EMS jobs.
Twenty-two states strictly prohibit such offenders from working as EMTs.
"This is the type of person we don't want in the back of an ambulance with your mother or daughter," said March Tucker, an EMS regulator in West Virginia.
All but one of the eight registered sex offenders certified to work in Texas victimized children ranging in age from 6 to 16.
"Oh, my goodness, that's really scary," said Winfred Dean, who supervises the sex offender monitoring unit for the Harris County probation department in Houston. "I thought people like that would more than likely be eliminated."
Texas officials said state regulations call for EMS licensing decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.
"The only thing we can do is follow the law, and the law allows this," said Maxie Bishop, state EMS director. "We have to take a look at the crime, how long it's been, the nature of it and what that person has done since."
Associated Press writers Brian Farkas in Charleston W.Va., and Richard Richtmyer in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.