PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On July 15, an AMR ambulance, lights and sirens blaring, was rushing down SE Powell Boulevard in Portland when a man in a white SUV floored it from the shoulder of the road speeding straight for the paramedics.

Luckily, the driver of the ambulance was able to swerve to avoid a head-on collision, but the inevitable T-bone crash was captured on video from inside the ambulance.

Union representatives for American Medical Response workers are sounding the alarm about the escalating number of assaults against paramedics in Multnomah County.

A screen grab from AMR video shows a white SUV intentionally heading toward the speeding ambulance on SE Powell in Portland. Photo provided August 1, 2022 (AMR)
A screen grab from AMR video shows a white SUV heading toward the speeding ambulance on SE Powell in Portland. Photo provided July 20, 2022

“Our EMTs and paramedics are under attack. And we need to put a stop to it,” said Leslie Sloy, the secretary-treasurer at Local 223. “It’s just gotten way out of hand.”

Randy Lauer, the vice president of operations for Global Medical Response, sent an email to Sam Adams in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office about the SUV incident. In part, Lauer wrote:

The attached video is of a mentally ill person in a vehicle targeting one of our ambulances. He heard the siren and then laid in wait for an ambush. He has been missing from a group home and told police he wanted to kill the paramedics. … I want to keep this on your radar because I fear a bad event is just around the corner with the frequency of violence against EMS.”

In this case, Portland police arrested John Harbour, a 51-year-old officers said was in a behavioral health crisis. He was cited for 2 counts of 3rd-degree assault, reckless driving, reckless endangerment and careless driving.

But KOIN 6 News learned the paramedics don’t feel like the charges match the severity of the crime.

“The public needs to be aware that this is going on because these are our everyday heroes,” Sloy said. “They’re out there trying to save lives and this is interfering with their work and what they love to do.”

Former AMR employees shared photos of broken glass in their ambulance after a man bashed the passenger side window in with a bat, nearly hitting a pregnant paramedic inside.

Photos provided by former AMR employees about damage to the ambulance during an attack in Portland, undated. (Courtesy to KOIN)
Photos provided by former AMR employees about damage to the ambulance during an attack with a bat in Portland, 10/14/21. (Courtesy to KOIN)

“The looking over the shoulder, you know, ‘Am I going to be hit with a rock? Am I going to be sliced with a machete?’ I mean, these are things that have happened,” Sloy told KOIN 6 News. “When they’re trying to render aid and they have to keep looking over their shoulder for their own safety, that truly interrupts what they’re trying to do and the services they’re trying to provide.”

Self-defense training began in 2019

Three years ago, KOIN 6 News first exposed how AMR was documenting an increase of assaults to emergency responders in the last few years. That led AMR to start training their paramedics in self-defense.

“We didn’t get into this profession for people to take out their aggression on us. We got in this industry to help people in crisis,” EMS training officer Tim Case said at that time. “To go from the helpers to then being the ones needing the help, it’s disheartening for sure.”

At the time, paramedics were being attacked with pipes, stabbed with knives and pepper sprayed.

“Those are the most obvious, glaring cases,” Case said,” that really shine a light on why there’s a need for this.”

Unintended consequences

Now in 2022 the attacks are escalating. Workers said one factor for the increase of assaults is their increased contact with people in mental health crises. For instance, AMR paramedics now transport mental health patients — both those going voluntarily into treatment and involuntarily under a police hold.

The idea for this change, which began in 2016, is that it would be less traumatic for a person in a mental health crisis to be transported by paramedics than by police. Multnomah County officials told KOIN 6 they “believe that transport of people on these holds is best served by being a component of the medical system, rather than the criminal justice system.”

Two paramedics were assaulted while treating a woman with a medical issue in North Portland, August 12, 2019 (KOIN)

However, workers on the front line now say that change created unintended consequences.

Paramedics note the contract change in 2016 is also around the time the assaults began to rise. According to workers, that puts paramedics in a tough position.

For example, police criminally cited John L. Harbour for crashing into paramedics with his SUV. Even after he reportedly told officers he wanted to “kill the paramedics,” another crew of AMR paramedics had to come out to the scene of the crash and transport Harbour to the hospital because officers said he was in a behavioral health crisis and placed him on a police hold to the hospital.

Other secure transport vehicles typically have a barrier between the person being transported and the driver, like in a police car. Ambulances don’t have those security components since they are not primarily used for transporting people in custody.

“So,” Sloy said, “the AMR paramedics and EMTs are on their own to deal with the violence.”

In a statement, Mayor Wheeler said, “Emergency responders are critical to the well-being of our city and face on-the-job challenges that deserve our utmost respect. Keeping them safe is a top priority.”

Union leaders claim the attacks on paramedics are also an attack on everyday people in emergencies who may not get the 911 response time they so desperately need.

As for the case involving SUV driver John Harbour, a spokesperson for AMR said: “If the investigation determines that our crew was struck intentionally, we understand that Oregon has enhanced criminal penalties for attacking EMS crews during the performance of their duties.

The safety of our first responders is paramount. This incident is another example of the risks involved in working in EMS in Portland. AMR’s focus remains on District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s prosecution of the suspect that we believe is responsible for the July ambulance collision.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office would only say: “This is an open investigation and case will go to grand jury. I cannot disclose the timing of grand juries or comment further at this time.”