I-TEAM: ‘He should be here today’ — Man’s death shows problems with Richmond County’s EMS

Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 6:31 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A family’s agony leads to new questions about safety across Richmond County.

An Augusta daughter says her father’s death never should have happened and our I-Team investigates if Richmond County’s ambulance system plays a role.

For three years, WRDW/WAGT has covered Augusta’s 911 response. It’s recently been a split system with the Augusta Fire Department and a private company -- Gold Cross -- sharing emergency transports. But that will change once again.

But one family we spoke with says the switch is coming much too late.

The Augusta Commission is suspending Augusta Fire Department ambulance transports for the next year after we’ve reported on staffing, morale, and overtime complaints within the agency. But Kenneth Campbell’s family says those issues are just the tip of the iceberg.

“He should be here today,” Carol Campbell said. “He should be here today. And I don’t know, it’s very hard.”

Carol lost Kenneth at the age of 64. The pain is just as rigid for their daughter, Adrienne.

“I believe that my fire department, EMTs, is to blame. I believe the city -- because the fire department is in charge -- I believe my city has a lot to do with that,” Adrienne said.

It all started with a 911 call on January 3, 2020.

“My dad is using an oxygen machine, but for some reason, he doesn’t seem like he’s not getting enough oxygen and he’s sweating and he just … he told me he needed me to dial 911,” Adrienne said to the 911 operator.

We obtained the 911 call. Richmond County dispatch starts the call by getting Gold Cross on the line.

“Okay, I’m going to get someone en route to you,” the Gold Cross representative said.

“I just have a couple more questions, okay?”

After Gold Cross spoke with the family, the Gold Cross dispatcher requested a Richmond County ambulance, the two agencies split the duties per the county contract. Under that contract, the county has Augusta Fire personnel, who are also certified EMTs, staff three ambulances.

“Richmond County, are you on the line?” the Gold Cross representative said.

“I am,” the Richmond County operator said.

“Can we get Med 1, priority two, and first responders for breathing problems?” the Gold Cross representative said.

While Kenneth Campbell’s family says he was struggling to breathe, documents show the Richmond County ambulance didn’t arrive for another 16 minutes. This is despite the fact that the Campbell home is only one block away from where the ambulance was stationed, or just a two-minute drive, according to GPS mapping. The 911 call suggests the Augusta Fire Department ambulance got lost.

“Our fire department is one block away. I could have probably ran there faster than it was for them,” Adrienne said.

We reviewed records of the incident. Once crews arrived, there were issues with a machine. According to a Gold Cross patient care report, the Augusta Fire Department crews were “unable to rectify the technical issue with their monitor and the engine on scene did not know how to use the monitor at all.”

The Campbells claim that was not the only concern.

“She says, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, we’re going to have to check you. Let us take your oxygen off and give you ours. See if you get more air from ours.’ They never produced theirs,” Adrienne said.

They didn’t have anything to intubate with. They had one but it was for a child. Carol and Adrienne say they watched helplessly as Richmond County then called a second ambulance company, Gold Cross, to come help. They say he then had a panic attack.

“So they at this point absolutely no supplies. Period,” Carol said.

The Gold Cross patient care report also shows Kenneth Campbell had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and congestive heart failure. The Gold Cross medic described him as “pulseless, lying on the bedroom floor” when they arrived.

Due to the Augusta Fire Department’s “technical issue with their monitor,” Gold Cross requested their own “monitor be brought into the residence while attempting to further provide patient care.”

As minutes ticked by, the report states Kenneth Campbell was finally loaded onto a board to get to the ambulance. But Augusta Fire Department “members pushed too fast down the narrow hallway entrance” and “rotated, causing the [patient] to roll off.” Records show during the fall, his breathing tube was dislodged.

“It was like a circus,” Carol said.

“It was a circus,” Adrienne agreed.

Two hours and 13 minutes after Adrienne’s call for help for some additional oxygen, Kenneth Campbell was pronounced dead at the VA hospital. Respiratory failure and COPD were listed as the official causes. Weeks later, emails sent to us show in-fighting among the Augusta Commission as city leaders were made aware of the incident.

Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem Sean Frantom emails Augusta Fire Chief Chris James on Jan. 30 with all of the commission copied on it: “Can you please send the full report on what happened at Glenn Hills Circle? The patient was Kenneth Campbell. I am disappointed an issue of this magnitude was not told to us.”

Commissioner Sammie Sias responded. “Here we go again, Pro-Tem trying to harass the fire chief. Sias added, “Pro-Tem is demanding the chief violate federal HIPPA law” ending with “let the chief do his dam(sic) job!!!!!!!”

District 8′s Brandon Garrett replied: “Here we go again with Sias circling the wagons around his beloved Chief -- no matter what his dept may have done.”

Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed to us, at the state level, ambulance services go through annual inspections. DPH officials told us at the local level, ambulance services self-inspect. We pulled those inspections for the unit involved in the Campbell case. Remember the family alleged a lack of supplies, including oxygen tanks and intubation.

There were “portable O2 bottles” and “O2 w/regulator” plus “airways” meaning intubation, but the report only accounts for what existed at the time of the January 3, 2020 inventory check at the beginning of the shift. It does not show what existed throughout the day. We attempted to cross-reference reports from the following day because if any supplies were missing or needing to be re-stocked by the end of January 3, 2020 it’d be noted at the beginning of January 4, 2020. When we asked Augusta Fire for that document, we were told “there was no medical inventory done for that day.”

Our I-Team wanted to know if there was any shortage of equipment at any point and its impact to the medical response. The Augusta Fire media representative answered my question via email writing: “Due to HIPPA law, I can only state the following: The department’s investigation into the response in question shows there was no adverse impact on the patient or their care.” He also emailed that supplies “were available.”

We did find another email sent in January, weeks after Campbell died. It is from the former Augusta Fire-EMS chief to another Augusta Fire Department Chief. It said, “there are some things that we are running low on” like “KING 4 airways” -- or intubations -- are listed as “zero” quantity. The email continued, “Also, I have the training calendar completed. It’s going to take a total of 9 days per month to complete all 3 shifts. What are my options to get this completed w/ personnel since I have no assistance?”

We sat down with interim Augusta Fire-EMS Chief Christopher Rockwell, who told us training, staffing, and supplies for the fire ambulances were adequate. Rockwell could not, however, speak on the medical response to Kenneth Campbell.

“Our normal process is equipment check in the mornings and if a fire truck or ambulance uses equipment and they don’t meet adequate levels, then they remain out of service until they re-supply,” Rockwell said.

“We currently have five re-supply points in Richmond county that we use, so there should, at no point in time, should there ever be a time where they don’t have adequate equipment for supplies.”

For three years now, we’ve covered the ignited concerns surrounding Augusta Fire. This year, the city hired McGrath Consulting for $25,000 to get to the source of the flames between the commission, fire department leadership, and crews. We combed through the 40-page report and discovered consultants found”

  • “approximately 70% of the members interviewed did not want anything to do with Augusta Fire EMS” and
  • “90 percent of the suppression members interviewed felt they were, or could be, assigned to an ambulance with no formal training”
  • “if there is a policy for training assignments to an ambulance, it is not followed or does not exist.”

We asked Rockwell about that finding.

“The education even starts when they come through our group program and go to EMT school,” Rockwell said. “They get oriented on what happened on the ambulance from basic operation from that point.”

Nearly 10 months after Campbell’s death, city leaders voted in favor of suspending ambulance services from the Augusta Fire Department in order to offer more time for training, more time to recruit personnel committed to both fire and EMS, plus more time to review changes within leadership.

They also got more time -- the one thing the Campbells wish Kenneth had.

“I’m just hopeful from here on, you know, our emergency services take care of the people of Augusta,” Adrienne said. “I just wish.”

Just last week, the Augusta Commission updated its agreement with Gold Cross. Because Augusta Fire ambulances will no longer transport patients, Gold Cross is set to dedicate more of its own ambulances. The private company says it will make up for the loss and won’t slow response times. However, Augusta leaders and Gold Cross will continue to discuss contract terms over the coming weeks.

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