Federal safety officials who reviewed a highway crash that badly injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed a friend were sharply critical of the emergency response to it and are urging the state to establish minimum standards, but prior efforts at reform have failed.
The criticism came during a National Transportation Safety Board meeting Tuesday to determine the cause of the June 7, 2014, crash on the New Jersey Turnpike and to make safety recommendations. It came after the Democrat-led Legislature passed measures to overhaul the state's emergency response system in 2011 and 2013 but Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed them.
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The panel's written review found the emergency response included "missteps on scene due to poor communication, lack of oversight, and nonstandard patient care practices" and recommended the state Department of Health establish minimum training and practice standards for all the organizations that respond to emergencies on the Turnpike, one of the nation's busiest toll roads.
Questioning became particularly pointed when one board member noted that some professions require many hours of training while emergency responders face no across-the-board training requirement.
"To be a cosmetologist in the state of New Jersey you need 1,200 hours of training and yet for certain levels for basic life support here for emergency response there is no requirement in the state of New Jersey for training hours or certification," NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.
New Jersey has professional and volunteer corps of emergency responders, and training standards are highly variable, NTSB investigator Thomas Barth said.
That variability led Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale to author legislation calling for the state Department of Health to oversee emergency medical services.
"Everyone who participates as first responders does a great job whether they're paid or volunteers, but there also has to be accountability and transparency," Vitale said.
The legislation also would have required criminal background checks for responders and the appointment of a doctor to coordinate medical services in the state.
Christie called the legislation well-intentioned and indicated it could help create a more coherent emergency response structure but ultimately said it would cost the state and towns millions of dollars. He also called for a comprehensive review of how the changes might affect taxes and volunteerism among emergency responders.
The Christie administration, in response to questions about the panel's recommendations, said the Department of Health already has minimum standards from staffing and educational requirements to equipment and supplies for all licensed ambulances. The department will work with the state's emergency responders to develop future training requirements and standards, as it has in the past, department spokeswoman Donna Leusner said.
Vitale said he plans to push the bill again in the fall.
Comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair was killed in the crash, which affected 21 people in six vehicles. The limousine van carrying the comedians was hit by a Wal-Mart truck.
The safety board found the truck's driver, Kevin Roper, of Jonesboro, Georgia, hadn't slept in 28 hours and failed to slow down to the posted speed limit of 45 mph in a construction zone. Roper has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault by auto, and his attorney disputed that he had gone without sleep for 28 hours.
Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reached settlements with Morgan and with McNair's children, saying it was "committed to doing what's right."
The safety board also cited the failure of Morgan and other passengers in the limousine van to wear seat belts and adjust headrests and said that contributed to the severity of injuries when the limo was struck from behind by the truck. Most of the injuries were caused when the passengers were whipped around or thrown into the sides of the vehicle, the board said.