A claim filed by a Southern California firefighter handcuffed at the scene of a crash demands that the California Highway Patrol fix a “longstanding problem” of CHP officers getting in the way of emergency crews on the state’s highways.
"It was a very odd, surreal situation," Chula Vista Fire Engineer Jacob Gregoire recalled as he discussed the issue Tuesday.
In a legal claim filed March 21, Gregoire claims CHP officers often “’delay’ and ‘obstruct’ firefighters and ‘other emergency technicians’ attempting to treat sick and injured on California highways.”
"I'm looking for change. I'm looking for a very simple policy where anybody can pick it up and realize who is in charge, how an incident is going to be run and to eliminate five minutes of talking on the side of a freeway that's going to take away from a patient's "golden hour" of care," Gregoire said.
On the night of Feb. 4, Gregoire parked his fire engine at a crash scene along Interstate 805 near Telegraph Canyon Road.
A vehicle had crashed into the center divider and then rolled through a construction area, injuring two people.
When CHP officer Sergio Flores told Gregoire to move his fire truck, the fire engineer refused. He explained Tuesday that he had parked the fire engine in a way as to protect the ambulance and the patients on gurneys from oncoming highway traffic.
Soon after, the CHP officer handcuffed the engineer and put him in the back of a CHP patrol car.
"At the time, I tell you, I thought my career was over," Gregoire said. "It was tough, it was really hard to sit in back of the CHP car and be treated the way he treated me."
Gregoire claims he asked Flores to loosen the cuffs but the CHP officer tightened them instead.
When he asked a second time for the cuffs to be loosened, he claims the officer laughed at him.
The incident was shared nationally by firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and law enforcement officers around the nation and led to a protocol review by both the CHP and Chula Vista Fire Department.
The two agencies called the confrontation unfortunate and vowed to make it part of future training.
However, Gregoire and his attorney Dan Gilleon say there have been several incidents since Feb. 4 and there has been no discussion about a clarification of who has authority at a highway crash scene.
Gregoire fears the problem has been dropped by both agencies.
"I don’t think I can go the rest of my career knowing that this just got swept under the carpet and this was no big deal," Gregoire said.
About a week after the incident, Chula Vista Fire Chief Dave Hanneman said what happened between the firefighter and CHP officer appeared to be more about miscommunication in an emergency situation rather than a need to change protocol.
Currently, the CHP does have authority on highways. However, since Chula Vista firefighters arrived first on scene that day, the fire captain had initial command.
Hanneman said, per standard operating policy, there was supposed to be a transfer of power or debriefing between the fire department and CHP that likely didn’t occur.
Two incidents have come to light since the Feb. 4 event and one involves the same CHP officer according to the attorney.
“This is an opportunity to fix this ongoing problem and make the patients on the roadway a priority,” Gilleon said.
The attorney said that if the claim moves forward, the CHP officer may face a violation of PC 148 that prohibits anyone "who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer, peace officer, or an emergency medical technician...in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment.."
Gregoire said his union heard of similar stories from other "large counties" around the state involving interactions with CHP officers in the field.
When asked if the leadership at Chula Vista Fire Department supported the claim filed by Gregoire, the attorney said, "It doesn’t appear the chief of the fire department in Chula Vista has been all that supportive."
Gregoire is a 12-year veteran of the department.