A Polk County Fire Rescue engineer/paramedic was at fault in the accident that sent an ambulance crashing through the wall of the former Proud Gator store, according to a Polk County Sheriff’s Office report released Monday.
The ambulance was en route to a call — traveling southbound on South Florida Avenue with its lights and sirens on at 11:43 p.m. Friday — when it came upon a vehicle that “was unable to yield to the right due to the concrete medians,” the report states.
The engineer started moving to the center lane to pass the vehicle, not realizing there is a pedestrian refuge island in the road just south of Hickory Street. Upon seeing the island, the engineer “attempted to maneuver around but struck the median with the front left tire and began to lose control.
The ambulance careened southbound and “struck the right shoulder median with both right front and rear tires.” That caused the ambulance to be ”redirected towards the northbound lanes in a southeast direction,” where it crashed through the exterior wall of the recently closed Proud Gator store at 700 S. Florida Ave.
Photos of the scene showed a gaping hole in the building and the front of the ambulance completely crushed with front wheels askew and its shattered windshield torn from its frame.
Fire Rescue spokeswoman Katelyn Hoverkamp said there were four crew members in the ambulance at the time of the accident. They had been dispatched to the scene of a disabled vehicle in which the driver was “reportedly experiencing a possible medical condition,” Hoverkamp said.
Hoverkamp said the employees included one firefighter/EMT, one firefighter/paramedic, one paramedic in training and one engineer/paramedic. All four were transported to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center by colleagues in another PCFR ambulance after the crash.
The driver and a crew member in the rear of the vehicle had minor injuries. A crew member in the right front passenger seat had a broken hand. The crew member in the front center seat suffered fractured ribs and a fractured tibia.
Questions about road design
The accident occurred within a one-mile stretch of South Florida Avenue through Dixieland that was converted in 2020 from five narrow lanes to three wider ones as part of a “road diet” project.
The change was intended to bring the travel lanes — one northbound, one southbound and a center turn lane — up to the minimum 11-foot width required by the state. It also freed about 6 feet of asphalt on either side of the road for future sidewalk expansion.
However, construction of the sidewalks may be five to 10 years away. In the meantime, concrete placeholders on either side of the road have been extremely unpopular with Lakeland drivers. Several residents took to social media over the weekend, blaming the road diet for the ambulance crash.
City Planning and Transportation Manager Chuck Barmby said emergency vehicles were an important consideration in the design of the center lane.
“We would have typically recommended more trees and green space in the middle of the roadway, kind of as an added traffic calming feature,” Barmby said. “But we wanted to keep as much of that middle turn lane area open as possible to give either emergency vehicles a place to be able to maneuver around slower traffic, or to allow traffic to move into a lane to yield to the emergency vehicle.”
Barmby said he was surprised that yielding was mentioned as a factor in the weekend crash.
“We don’t typically have that much traffic on South Florida Avenue at that time of night,” he said. “I’m not sure of the circumstances … but there are driveways, there are side streets. I believe there are enough of them — if there are one or two cars on the road — for them to be able to get out of the way should they need to.”
PCSO spokeswoman Carrie Horstman said the vehicle the ambulance tried to pass did not stop, “so we don’t know who that driver was or what that vehicle was.”
The center turn lane is clear for most of the way down South Florida Avenue, however, there are at least two pedestrian refuge islands, including the one south of Hickory Street.
Barmby said that island was installed before the road diet. It was added between 2015 and 2016 as a safety measure for residents of the Lakeland Presbyterian Apartments, many of whom crossed the road there to access transit stops on the east and west sides of South Florida Avenue.
Those bus stops were eliminated in 2020 when the road was narrowed. Citrus Connection removed four pairs of bus stops in the reconfigured section of South Florida Avenue and established the Peach Line circulator service instead, using side streets to move passengers around Dixieland and parts of downtown.
Barmby noted that “there is definitely appropriate striping before and after the island” to alert drivers. However, the island may no longer be needed.
“We need to take a look and see if there are still people using that island to get from one side of the road to the other,” Barmby said. “We need to work with DOT, collect the data, talk with Presbyterian Towers … if the island isn’t needed, see if it can be removed as part of the overall improvement.”
Questions about speed and double shifts
The ambulance traveled at least 275 feet between the pedestrian refuge island and its final resting place outside the Proud Gator.
The distance and heavy black skid marks on the road and the concrete barriers raised questions about how fast the ambulance was traveling at the time of the crash. Ambulances are significantly heavier than passenger cars, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says at 65 miles per hour, it takes 201 feet to stop a passenger vehicle.
Although the report states that the ambulance was the “violator vehicle,” Horstman said no citations have been issued. The crash is still under investigation by the sheriff’s office.
“A citation may be pending the complete investigation,” she said.
The firefighters’ union, Polk County Professional Firefighters Local 3531, has raised alarms over the past year about staffing shortages and mandatory overtime shifts.
Hoverkamp said that was not a factor on Friday night. Three of the crew members were on regular duty and one (not the driver) had come in voluntarily to work overtime.
The PCSO accident report said the driver showed no signs of impairment, although it is standard practice for government employees to submit to blood tests after an accident while on duty. Hoverkamp said it has not been determined yet what it would cost to repair the ambulance, or if the vehicle is a total loss.
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