In nearly 18 years of practice representing EMS agencies nationwide, we’ve dealt with a number of cases involving alleged discrimination against patients based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability and other protected categories.
Many EMS agencies don’t realize that federal and state laws protect the right of the patient with a disability to rely on a service animal to assist them with the activities of daily living-including accompanying them while in a motor vehicle, such as on a public conveyance like a city bus and even an ambulance.
If your EMS agency outright refuses to permit service animals to accompany patients in ambulances, odds are your agency may be subject to a claim for unlawful discrimination. With some exceptions related to safety, these legal protections for individuals with a disability extend to allowing a service animal to accompany the patient on an ambulance.
The Disability Rights Section of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division is in charge of enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On its website, the DOJ has posted frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA on its website. Question 16 asks, “Must a service animal be allowed to ride in an ambulance with its handler?”1
The answer is, “Generally, yes. However, if the space in the ambulance is crowded and the dog’s presence would interfere with the emergency medical staff’s ability to treat the patient, staff should make other arrangements to have the do transported to the hospital.”1
Most of us would agree that the space in the back of an ambulance is always crowded. However, except in very rare circumstances, a service animal that’s well-trained won’t interfere with a crew’s ability to treat the patient. This means that, although it may be rare for crews to encounter patients with service animals, it should be even rarer for an EMS agency to not allow a patient’s service animal to accompany him or her in the back of the ambulance.
The ADA specifies, “a person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: 1) the animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or 2) the animal is not housebroken.”2
All EMS agencies should adopt a policy on the transport of service animals that complies with federal, state and local laws. This way, an EMS agency can ensure its staff knows how to properly handle a situation in which a patient presents with a service animal.
Drafting a Policy
In drafting a service animal policy, the first helpful thing to keep in mind is the federal definition of “service animal.”
The ADA defines a service animal as:
“[A]ny dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.3
In drafting a service animal policy, it’s also important to understand what EMS crews are permitted to ask patients concerning possible service animals.
The ADA significantly limits the questions that a covered entity’s employees, including EMS crews, can ask to determine if a dog is a service animal. In situations where it’s not obvious that the dog is a service animal, EMS crews may only ask: 1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and 2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?1
The DOJ’s interpretation of certain issues that EMS agencies may run across with respect to service animals is also helpful to know when drafting a policy. First, it’s not permissible for an EMS crew to ask for or require documentation, such as proof that a service animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal.4 Second, it’s not necessary that the dog wear a vest, ID tag, or anything else that would identify it as a service animal.1 Third, “allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.”5 EMS agencies should also check their state laws related to service animals to ensure complete legal compliance.
Having a service animal policy can help ensure that your EMS agency and its staff know what’s required to comply with the ADA. A well-crafted policy can also help ensure that patients with service animals will only be separated from their service animals on the rare occasion that the animal interferes with patient care or starts exhibiting aggressive or protective behaviors that the patient is unable to control.
1. Frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA. (July 20, 2015.) U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division: Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.
2. 28 CFR § 36.302(c)(2)(i) and (ii).
3. 28 CFR §§ 35.104, 36.104.
4. 28 CFR § 36.302(c)(6).
5. ADA requirements: Service animals. (July 12, 2011.) U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division: Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.