When Seconds Count

By Tisha Thompson and Rick Yarborough
|  Tuesday, Aug 27, 2013  |  Updated 1:55 PM EDT
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After the death of a 53-year-old D.C. man, the News4 I-Team investigated ambulance delays and why it is taking so long for D.C. Fire & EMS to answer questions about long response times. We went straight to the chief and what we found shines a light on what’s happening inside D.C. FEMS.

Tisha Thompson, Rick Yarborough

After the death of a 53-year-old D.C. man, the News4 I-Team investigated ambulance delays and why it is taking so long for D.C. Fire & EMS to answer questions about long response times. We went straight to the chief and what we found shines a light on what’s happening inside D.C. FEMS.

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After the death of a 53-year-old D.C. man, the News4 I-Team investigated ambulance delays and why it is taking so long for D.C. Fire & EMS to answer questions about long response times. We went straight to the chief and what we found shines a light on what’s happening inside D.C. FEMS.

Loretta Wheeler told us through good times and bad, she and her husband Derrick raised seven kids while battling his kidney disease and asthma.

"We'd been married 23 years," Loretta said.

On the night of Dec. 6, Derrick started to have trouble breathing.  Loretta said she hit a medical alert button to call 911 at 8:51 p.m.

According to internal documents obtained by the News4 I-Team, 911 dispatched an ambulance one minute later.

At the same time, Loretta’s husband told her, “Loretta, don’t leave me.  I can’t breathe.”  Loretta told him, “’I’m not.’  And the next minute I turn around he’s slumped over.”

Loretta started CPR and hit the button again at 8:55 p.m.

Desperate to save her husband, she continued compressions as minutes ticked by.

Her neighbor called 911 around 8:59 p.m.

Medical experts like the Mayo Clinic say "time is critical" with an "unconscious person who isn't breathing" because "death or permanent brain damage can occur within four to six minutes."

The internal records show the first ambulance showed up 10 minutes after being dispatched. But, that crew did not have a paramedic and couldn't do what's called "Advanced Life Support." 

Instead, the crew took over CPR and called for a second unit. 

It arrived at 9:11 p.m. - 20 minutes after Loretta first called.

D.C. FEMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe says the units did their job that night.  “They did everything they could to save this man’s life,” he told us.

He said crews worked on the scene for almost an hour to get a pulse before transporting Derrick to Washington Hospital Center, where he was placed on life support. 

The 53-year-old died five days later.

Now, his widow wonders why that first responding ambulance didn't have what it needed to save her husband.  "If I had known there was a problem, I would have been better off driving my husband to the hospital," Loretta explained.

It's the same question the News4 I-Team has been trying to get answers to for more than a year.  We’ve put in several Freedom of Information Act requests for records that would show if there are problems with staffing and equipment.

They've been ignored by D.C. Fire.

The issue came up during a March D.C. Council hearing when Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells asked D.C. FEMS staffers about FOIA problems.  “On March 8, 2013, FOIA requests were sent by a Ms. Tisha Thompson of WRC NBC News,” Wells said during the hearing.  “So, what happened with the requests?”

The staffer responded, “I believe some of those requests were received by mail and they were sitting, literally, in a box unopened."

We asked Chief Ellerbe why it has taken so long to get this information.  He told us, “We've hired a new FOIA officer so hopefully we resolved that issue."

We’re still waiting.

Chief Ellerbe did tell us he wants to make changes to address equipment problems and the paramedic shortage, including a possible shift change, which requires D.C. Council approval.

"If we go from four shifts to three shifts we'll actually have 400 extra bodies that we can spread through three shifts,” Chief Ellerbe explained.  “So, it would take almost 80 people to call in sick before it would begin to affect our operation."

According to D.C. FEMS, there are roughly 39 ambulances on the streets each day but only a third actually carry a paramedic.

Ellerbe said he will have new gear for broken ambulances by this summer and the department is exploring an internal training program for new paramedics.

"Anytime we have these instances that have a negative outcome I take it personal," Ellerbe said.

But for Loretta, not as personal as the families left to wonder if a few extra minutes could have made the difference.

"If they don't let the people know how are we to know how to respond to situations when loved ones are at risk for their lives."

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