Aiken County 911: I-Team investigation exposes critical mistakes made on critical calls

An all-new I-Team investigation begins with a heart attack — a mother collapses on the floor.
Published: Jul. 6, 2020 at 5:45 PM EDT
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AIKEN, SC (WRDW/WAGT) - An all-new I-Team investigation begins with a heart attack — a mother collapses on the floor. Her family, knowing seconds count, begins CPR and dials Aiken County 911.

The I-Team obtained this 911 call from that day. The dispatcher only sent one first responder instead of two, violating policy for emergency response to a heart attack victim. We uncovered that this isn't the first time an Aiken County dispatched possibly endangered lives instead of saving them.

But back to that 911 call -- Barbara Roberts was in the middle of suffering what her family says was a minor heart attack. They believe she would have made a full recovery had the dispatched followed proper protocol.

“My mom was the rock of our family. She was our constant,” Frank Roberts said.

It's the mother the Roberts family tries to remember.

"She had just retired in the last 10 years. She was supposed to enjoy the last years of her life," her son said.

It's much easier to remember her like that than to see her in the nursing home where she currently lives.

"Now she's in a nursing home in a bed, doesn't recognize where she's at. She's on a feeding tube," Frank said.

On May 6, 2019, Barbara's life changed forever.

"Yes, we need an ambulance immediately at Windsor Road," Frank said to the dispatcher.

"At Windsor Road?" the dispatcher responded.

"Yes," Frank responded.

"Why do you need an ambulance?" the dispatcher asked.

"Cardiac arrest! Cardiac arrest! We need an ambulance immediately," Frank said.

"Sir, you don't need to keep repeating you need an ambulance immediately," the dispatcher said. "I need to know what is going on. I need to know."

“Cardiac arrest,” Frank said.

"Cardiac arrest?" the dispatcher responded.

"Cardiac arrest! Cardiac arrest! Get someone out here!" Frank said.

"Sir, why are you yelling at me," the dispatcher said. I am not yelling at you," the dispatcher said. "It takes me longer to take this call because you keep repeating yourself," the dispatcher said.

"And then she hangs up the 911 call," Frank said.

The Roberts family has listened to the call hundreds of times. They say they could replay it hundreds more and still not make since of it."

"I cringe," Brenda Roberts, Frank's wife, said. "My husband is pleading for help."

"I didn't realize what was going on because he's watching me do CPR on his mother on the floor," Brenda said.

It takes a trained ear to hear the real problem unfold on the call.

“I’ve been a paramedic for 17 years and an EMS for 20. Both as a dispatcher, a firefighter, a first responder, and a paramedic,” Brenda said.

Brenda hears two very important words over and over again -- five times. Cardiac arrest.

"She even came back and said, 'What do you mean cardiac arrest?' So she acknowledged that she heard cardiac arrest," Brenda said.

Why is that significant?

"Because a cardiac arrest is a term that a professional who is in the healthcare field refers to someone who is pulseless, who does not have a pulse, their heart is not beating and they are not breathing and CPR is in performance at that point," Brenda said.

Cardiac arrest requires advanced life support. DHEC requires two first responders -- at least one of which is a paramedic.

"When you are dispatched to a cardiac arrest, you need at least two people to perform all that care in the back of the truck to survive that incident," Brenda said.

DHEC says you need one person to administer CPR or hook the patient up to a machine that administers CPR and a second person to set up ventilation and an IV bag with live-saving medication.

Only one responded to the Roberts' call. The 911 dispatcher dispatched the call as "chest pain."

Only one paramedic responded to the Barbara Roberts' call. The 911 dispatcher dispatched the...
Only one paramedic responded to the Barbara Roberts' call. The 911 dispatcher dispatched the call as "chest pain."(Source: WRDW)

"Chest pain is a delta level call. What that means is it's a downgrade from a cardiac arrest," Brenda said.

The dispatcher enters "first responders not required on this call" when she lists the call as chest pain.

“When he met him in the yard to flag him down and said she’s in cardiac arrest, his expression was like — what?” Brenda said.

Right away, the paramedic recognizes the severity of the situation and tell Frank to call 911 back while he calls for back-up.

"This is Medic 7," the paramedic says into his radio. "Need a first responder. We got CPR in progress."

The paramedic requests a first responder to meet them on the road as he needs an extra set of hands to help save Barbara Roberts' life.

"If there had been adequate help dispatched, where the paramedic would have had other hands, someone would have had to do CPR, someone would need to ventilate her, so she's getting oxygen to her brain," Brenda said.

We pieced together a timeline of those critical moments using records. It took 4 minutes for the extra set of hands to step in.

"For her to receive the kind of brain injury she received, it was suggested she went 4 -5 minutes without oxygen to her brain, so that tells me the paramedic had to stop ventilating her in order to do all the other procedures that needed to be done because he didn't have the help that he needed," Brenda said.

Barbara survived the heart attack, but the mother her family knew before May 6, 2019 died that day.

"You live in a bubble and don't think something like this will ever happen to you and your family," Frank said.

But it's happened to other families, too.

We found another call that came in to Aiken County dispatch on June 8, 2020 -- vomiting, arms,...
We found another call that came in to Aiken County dispatch on June 8, 2020 -- vomiting, arms, and neck pains are signs of a possible heart attack. But the report shows the dispatcher lists the call as vomiting -- not cardiac arrest. Thus, the call was a lower priority call.(Source: WRDW)

Brenda is fortunate to have been there for Barbara. Had she not been in her career, she may not have picked up on the issues.

"That's the scary part is how many families have lost loved ones and they have no idea," Brenda said.

Due to confidentiality, the I-Team cannot confirm what happened to the other cardiac patient in the second report. But with our investigation uncovering dispatch errors in call after call, we took our questions to Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt. The sheriff’s office runs dispatch.

"The bottom line is dispatchers are human," Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt said. "They're going to make a mistake once in a while."

But in an emergency, mistakes can costs lives -- like the case of a fire on Windsor Road. Dispatch is called as a 3-year-old child is still inside of home that is in flames.

"My baby in there," the woman says to the dispatcher. "He's three. Oh lord, Jesus. Come on."

The dispatcher input the wrong address. The woman's son died before firefighters could get to him.

Why is this happening? We have been digging into records and found that lack of training combined with a high turnover rate is putting inexperienced dispatchers in charge of Aiken County lives.

Sheriff Hunt told the I-Team the dispatcher that answered the Roberts’ call for help is no longer employed with Aiken County Dispatch. Our I-Team talked to Sheriff Hunt about turnover and burnout in dispatch. You will hear more from him on Thursday.

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