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Ambulance Carrying Heart Patient Stopped

DORCHESTER COUNTY, S.C. -- Dorchester County Administrator Jason Ward pressed the gas and switched on the white, flashing headlights of his county-issued Ford Crown Victoria last month when he saw a county ambulance speeding along U.S. Highway 78 without its emergency lights and sirens.

Ward said it wasn't until after the ambulance driver mistook him for a police officer and stopped that he realized the ambulance was transporting a heart patient to a cardiologist at Trident Regional Medical Center in Summerville.

The incident delayed the ambulance for about one minute and 40 seconds, according to county EMS records, and has since resulted in two apologies to the patient and her family on behalf of both Ward and County Council.

Phillip Byrd, who was riding in the back of the ambulance while a paramedic took care of his mother, Carolyn Hilton, said they have accepted the apologies but wanted people to know that it happened and that it shouldn't happen again.

"I just want to say that the county administrator used extremely poor judgment," Byrd said.

County GPS records show the ambulance was driving as much as 14 mph over the speed limit, a violation of county policy and state law that mandates ambulances can only disobey traffic laws in emergency situations with their lights and sirens on.

County officials say they have since instituted a new policy that will address questionable driving by ambulance drivers after the fact so patient care isn't interrupted again.

Ward on Tuesday acknowledged an "error in judgment" and that he wouldn't do it the same way if he had it to do over again.

He said his intention wasn't to pull the vehicle over, but to get it to slow down. Earlier that same day, a paramedic, an ambulance driver and two patients were taken to the hospital after someone rear-ended another EMS unit.

"I turned on my lights because I was going fast and I was trying to find out what the heck was going on with this vehicle," Ward said. "I was trying to get their attention so they would slow down."

Byrd said there should have been ways for Ward to find out if there was a patient inside before chasing down the vehicle.

Ward said he twice called the Dorchester County EMS office and spoke to officials briefly before the calls were dropped.

EMS Director Doug Warren said no one ever told the ambulance to pull over.

Warren and Ward said the driver thought the white Crown Victoria was a police car. Ward said the car is an unmarked 2002 police cruiser that he inherited when he took office.

The car does not have emergency lights on it, but it does have headlights that blink. Ward said he uses the lights while responding to storm damage and other emergency county operations in which he is the incident commander.

He said he has never tried to pull anyone over.

Ward and Warren said ambulances speeding without lights and sirens is not a new occurrence in the county. A letter dated Feb. 23, 2005, from Warren to all EMS personnel warns that not obeying traffic laws in a 5-ton vehicle is "dangerous and unacceptable."

"This is basically something we have to remind people of from time to time," Ward said.

Reach Andy Paras ataparas@postandcourier.com

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