I-TEAM: Lack of oversight, state enforcement at Aiken County 911 uncovered

Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 4:59 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - An I-Team investigation uncovered the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office is violating the law by not training its dispatchers in accordance with state statutes.

State Rep. Bill Hixon says based on the findings from a six-month I-Team investigation into Aiken County’s broken EMS system, he is looking to propose new legislation to require more oversight to ensure dispatchers, first responders, and ambulance EMS services are properly trained and staffed.

We exposed deadly issues from dispatchers sending help to the wrong address, 911 calls incorrectly coded leading to response time and lives lost, and instances where zero ambulances -- or Status Zero -- were available to respond to emergencies. We confirmed the Status Zero for ambulances happened more than 100 times during four months in 2020. It’s still ongoing despite changes made by county officials.

We examined South Carolina law and found it requires that 911 dispatchers be trained and certified within a year of their hiring date. As part of our investigation, we obtained years of hiring data from Aiken County and found that is not happening. A lack of oversight from the state may share the blame.

For Frank and Brenda Roberts, this news is all too familiar. Frank’s mother suffered a heart attack in May 2019. Barbara Roberts is now bedridden in a nursing home. Her family says that is not because of the heart attack.

“For her to receive the kind of brain injury she received, it was suggested she went four to five minutes without oxygen,” Brenda said.

We uncovered the Aiken County dispatcher was not E911 certified as she should have been under state law. We also obtained the 911 call itself.

“Cardiac arrest! Cardiac arrest! We need an ambulance immediately!” Frank Roberts said to the dispatcher.

“Sir, you don’t need to keep repeating you need an ambulance immediately," the dispatcher responded. "I need to know what is going on. I need to know--”

“Cardiac arrest," Frank responded.

"Cardiac arrest?” the dispatcher said.

“Cardiac arrest! Cardiac arrest! Get somebody out here," Frank said again.

We also obtained internal records that show the dispatcher logged the emergency call as a “chest pain” and not “cardiac” as it should have been. DHEC requires cardiac calls to have two first responders, an EMT, and a paramedic -- one to administer CPR and the other to ventilate the patient. The dispatcher sent only one first responder and even wrote, incorrectly, “first responders not required on this call.”

We combed through dozens of 911 call reports and found this isn’t the first time Aiken County dispatchers have downgraded a cardiac call to a less critical medical emergency. For example, we located a 911 call from June 8, 2020.

“What’s it in reference to, ma’am?” the dispatcher asked.

“Well I think I don’t know if it’s a heart attack or something else," the caller said. "He is outside and he about fainted and threw up and he says his arm is hurting.”

We found vomiting and arm pain are signs of a heart attack. Records show dispatch logged the call as vomiting.

A 911 CAD report.
A 911 CAD report.(WRDW)

It happened again on June 29, 2020.

“Yes, ma’am, I need an ambulance," the caller said.

“For what?” the dispatcher responded.

“I think my husband has had a heart attack or something," the caller said.

The Aiken County dispatcher sent this call out as respiratory distress -- not cardiac. The patient’s daughter-in-law called 911 back a short time later.

“Okay, well, his son is in there trying to do CPR on him," the caller said.

“Okay, don’t have anyone do CPR unless they know what they are doing, okay?" the dispatcher said.

“Yes, ma’am," the caller said.

“Okay, we got a unit en route,” the dispatcher said. "Ma’am, I got to disconnect we got a unit in route okay?”

Tragically, James Moulton, Sr., 59, did not make it. Folk Funeral Home posted his survivors include his loving wife of 43 years.

A CAD 911 report.
A CAD 911 report.(WRDW)

For the Roberts family, the 911 interactions bring back painful memories.

“I am not yelling at you," Frank said to the dispatcher.

“It takes me longer to take this call because you keep repeating yourself," the dispatcher responded.

The dispatcher then hangs up.

Brenda Roberts now wonders if the dispatcher had been properly trained and certified in accordance with South Carolina law if things could have been different for her mother-in-law.

“I think so because when you are trained as a dispatcher, you are trained on how to take control of a situation and be able to administer help to that person.”

Roberts should know, she’s been a trained paramedic dispatcher for more than 20 years.

We chose not to name the dispatcher involved because so far she has not been charged with any wrongdoing. We did request her personnel file and confirmed she was not E911 certified despite working for Aiken County Sheriff’s Office for six years.

We found this is in violation of state law. In South Carolina, dispatching agencies have only one year to send a dispatcher to get their E911 certification that training includes recognizing and properly dispatching medical calls.

Not only does the law require dispatchers to be E911 certified, but it also requires their employer must pay for the certification. Sheriff Michael Hunt’s office runs Aiken County dispatch. Hunt did not respond to our request for comment.

The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy conducts the state’s E911 training. We requested the names of dispatchers Hunt sent to the academy for certification. We counted six -- six over the last decade. The county is budgeted for 25 dispatchers annually.

Charles Swindler is the Director of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. We showed him those records and asked him if the numbers sounded right.

“That does not sound like the amount of employees they had in that period of time," Swindler said.

Swindler is responsible for training and enforcing state law. We asked him for a list of all state agencies fined or sanctioned for non-compliance.

“We have not sanctioned anyone for not sending their dispatchers -- their people," Swindler said.

But without any dispatch agency being sanctioned before, there are no repercussions from anyone.

“I agree," Swindler said. "I agree, but you saw the letter we sent out.”

One month after we first reported on the Roberts family this summer, Swindler mailed a letter to the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office as well as all other emergency dispatching agencies across the entire state of South Carolina. The letter warns the academy director can impose civil penalties against law enforcement agencies for not complying.

How did Swindler not know of the issues in Aiken County?

“Because I would not have that paperwork to see," Swindler said.

South Carolina law requires agencies to report new law enforcement hires to the academy. There’s not a mandate requiring agencies to report dispatcher hires.

Shouldn’t there be some sort of checks and balances?

“Only if the state would mandate it," Swindler said.

We found South Carolina’s legislative oversight committee conducted a study on the Criminal Justice Academy in 2017. Among the recommendations included “working with various stakeholders to determine revisions to laws … for non-compliance.”

Three years later, we found the law still hasn’t changed and there’s still no system is in place to assure dispatchers get required life-saving training.

In October, South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy discussed our investigation into untrained/uncertified dispatchers.

“The Academy received a Freedom of Information Act request and Director Swindler was interviewed by a news station in reference to this training. Under the regulations, once a telecommunication officer is hired they are required to attend Academy training within a year. The regulations do not require agencies to submit Personnel Status Forms for these officers as law enforcement and detention officers are required to do. Council discussed this matter and had questions answered by Director Swindler and James Fennell. Sheriff Foster made a motion to pursue this matter with the General Assembly and also to advise agencies on what they should be doing regarding their telecommunication officers. Council unanimously decided that agencies should be required to submit Personnel Status Forms for telecommunication officers.”

State Rep. Bill Hixon is on that oversight committee.

“After you and I had a conversation, I called the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy to see what needed to be done or could be done to have better dispatch regulations laws," Hixon said.

Hixon says because of our series of reports, he is now drafting legislation to hold dispatch agencies accountable.

“After you talked to me and I saw your television, watched every one of them, and I talked to Jackie. I see there is a situation that we can make better," Hixon said.

Brenda and Frank Roberts say she wants to see a change to spare other families their pain.

“Knowing my mom could have spent the last year of her life on this earth -- up walking talking but now she is bedridden -- she will be ridden the rest of her life," Frank said.

Swindler says he will begin fining local agencies for non-compliance in January. Agencies have two months to get their dispatchers certified. Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt says he is working toward that. He began sending dispatchers to school in September, months after our investigation began.

As for the dispatcher who answered the Roberts' family call, she is no longer with the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office. She left after being put on probation for six months. We confirmed she is now working for North Augusta dispatch and has since received her required certification.

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