Coroner slams ambulance checks and suggests a 'change of garage'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am

The Fire Services Department, whose often-criticised ambulances are serviced by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD), should 'change garages', because the maintenance is not effective enough, a coroner said.

'The truth is in front of our eyes,' Coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu told lawyer Samson Hung Kin-man, representing the fire department at an inquest into the deaths of three people who died after ambulances sent to pick them up broke down.

'The EMSD's maintenance is ineffective. You definitely have to change garages.'

Hung suggested re-evaluating the EMSD instead.

Chung Tak-shing, 60, Hui Ching, 86, and Loh Tchen-tong, 79, died on July 20 and 28 and August 15 last year.

Assistant mechanical inspector Chan Wai-to said the ambulance in Chung's case failed to start because the battery was dead.

In Hui's case, the vehicle was parked on a tilt, causing the pump to lose contact with the fuel, even though the fuel gauge indicated that the tank was almost a quarter full.

In Loh's case, the fire department had not sent the vehicle for an inspection.

The mechanical inspector said the EMSD had conducted thrice-yearly preventative inspections on two of the vehicles weeks before the failures, and they had been given clean bills of health.

The department had checked the battery indicator on the ambulance in Chung's case and the fuel gauge in Hui's, and found both were working.

But the coroner criticised the department for failing to check the battery, relying only on the indicator. Under his questioning, the inspector said the fuel gauge had not been checked for accuracy either.

The coroner accepted the failures did not cause the deaths. Because they occurred after the ambulances had reached the patient, the crew could fortunately perform emergency procedures on them. Should an ambulance fail before reaching a patient, it could cause a delay. 'It's exactly those 10 seconds that could mean death,' the coroner said.

Senior assistant chief ambulance officer Shum Kwok-leung said yesterday that the fire department had replaced 100 ambulances, and another 96 would be replaced by the third quarter of next year. After the replacements, the average age of the city's fleet would drop to below two years, he said. The department now conducts preventative inspections four times a year, and up to six times for older vehicles, instead of three previously, Shum said.