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Thieves find siren song irresistible as another ambulance is stolen in L.A., the 2nd in a week

Thieves find siren song irresistible as another ambulance is stolen in L.A., the 2nd in a week
Someone stole an ambulance in downtown L.A. early Sunday morning and drove it two miles before it crashed in the city's Westlake district. (KTLA)

The paramedics parked their ambulance in downtown Los Angeles during the dark, predawn hours of Sunday, rushing off to help their patient.

When they came back, the vehicle was gone.

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Police soon found the missing ambulance about two miles away, crashed a few blocks from MacArthur Park. Whoever had taken the vehicle was gone.

It was the third city emergency vehicle — and second ambulance — stolen within only days.

Last Tuesday, a woman hopped in an ambulance near downtown L.A.'s California Hospital Medical Center and led police on a nearly 40-mile chase before she eventually surrendered in Chino Hills.

Then on Friday, a man jumped into a police SUV that LAPD officers had left behind while they were chasing a vandalism suspect in Hollywood. The thief, whom authorities said was under the influence of narcotics, drove the police vehicle to Woodland Hills, where he was stopped by a spike strip.

The sight of police trailing a pilfered ambulance or one of their own vehicles drew a rapt audience on social media in a city where car chases are a spectator sport.

No single entity tracks the number of ambulances stolen nationwide, experts said, but there are almost monthly news reports of thieves driving off in the emergency vehicles.

In March, a U.S. Marine was arrested in Michigan after allegedly stealing and crashing an ambulance while celebrating his birthday. A month earlier, someone ditched a stolen ambulance by driving it into a river in Florida. Last fall, a woman took an ambulance in Las Vegas, driving 50 miles into California before she stopped.

Emergency response experts said what some might write off as a joyride can pose serious risks.

Without proper training, ambulances are difficult to drive and can cause significant damage or injuries if crashed. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair, even more to replace. And one less ambulance on the road could mean a longer wait for someone who needs critical help.

The thefts can also turn deadly. A paramedic was killed in New York last year after a man hijacked her ambulance and ran over her.

"They are very unusual vehicles in how they perform and how they need to be driven in order to be safe," said Dia Gainor, executive director of the National Assn. of State EMS Officials. "They are an inherently dangerous vehicle driven by someone not prepared to handle it."

Sunday's theft in Los Angeles happened around 3:25 a.m. as paramedics helped a patient near 7th Street and Grand Avenue, said Officer Rosario Herrera, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department.

They are an inherently dangerous vehicle driven by someone not prepared to handle it.


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Paramedics called police to report the missing vehicle, Herrera said, and used a tracking device on the vehicle to pinpoint its location. Authorities found the crashed vehicle at 7th and Rampart Boulevard. There were no apparent injuries caused by the collision.

No arrests had been made as of Sunday afternoon, the LAPD said.

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Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said the preliminary investigation indicated the ambulance was left running — but locked — and the suspect broke a window to get inside.

Sanders said that the ambulance stolen last Tuesday was outside the emergency room, its engine off, as the paramedics dropped off their patient. After that theft, he said, commanders issued internal directives "reiterating preventative and precautionary measures to reduce risk of theft."

"Both incidents remain under investigation," Sanders wrote in an email Sunday. "Each one is unique."

Most of the time, people who take ambulances are "not really intending to commit any harm" but are acting on the spur of the moment, said Vince Robbins, president of the National EMS Management Assn.

Those opportunities can arise in a paramedic's regular routine, Robbins said. Some leave their ambulances unlocked to allow for easy access during an emergency. Others will keep the vehicles running to preserve the battery and maintain an appropriate temperature for patients inside.

"It's usually the homeless guy that saw the ambulance and got in because he wanted to warm up, or it's the person who's been drinking too much," he said. "Usually, what we find is that it's a joyride."

There are, however, concerns that someone might have more sinister motives in the future, Robbins said. Some experts worry that a stolen ambulance could be used in a terrorist attack, as one was used in a bombing earlier this year in Afghanistan.

A 2015 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security outlined the concern, urging agencies to install tracking devices on emergency response vehicles and to closely monitor their whereabouts.

"It is imperative that emergency services organizations continue to educate their personnel and implement best practices to prevent theft of emergency response vehicles and equipment," the memo said.

If an ambulance is stolen, Robbins said, there are a few steps agencies can take to try and prevent it from happening again. Supervisors can remind paramedics to be more diligent. Dispatchers can help monitor the vehicles from afar, using tracking technology to make sure they aren't being driven away from scenes.

But the easiest solution, he said, was locking the doors.

UPDATES:

5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the recent thefts in Los Angeles and elsewhere as well as comments from experts and a city fire department spokesman.

This article was originally published at 10:50 a.m.

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