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I-TEAM: 15 minutes to die, investigating the critical failures of Augusta EMS

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 5:58 PM EDT
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RICHMOND COUNTY, Ga. - Clinging to life, an Augusta woman dials 911 but we uncovered video that shows for more than 15 minutes firefighters never tried to get inside to save her. Our I-Team spent months investigating the critical failures of Augusta-Richmond County emergency responders which ended in the Hephzibah woman’s death.

Nichoel Gaither’s family does not have closure. She left them too sudden, too young, leaving too many unanswered questions. Our investigation uncovered answers but the answers we found would make it difficult for any family to ever find peace.

IMPACT OF NICHOEL GAITHER’S SUDDEN DEATH

Nichoel and Nichelle Gaither were best friends and blood since birth. The sisters were only four years apart. They held a bond only death could break. “I used to call her my angel. She was my big sister,” Nichelle Gaither said choking back tears. “This is still real fresh.”

The morning of April 21, 2021 still feels like a dream for Nichelle. “Everything, my heart, it went to my stomach. I was broken. I remember driving I don’t remember what I was thinking about when I was driving down the road.” Nichelle can’t wake up from the nightmare that stole her big sister, Nichoel, away at the age of forty-three. “Her death was unexpected. I just don’t know what happened.”

The coroner lists the official cause of her sister’s death as pulmonary embolism but, like a single chapter in a book, the report doesn’t tell the full story. The I-Team obtained audio and video recordings that tell a story of a Hephzibah woman using her last moments on earth, and her final precious breaths, pleading for help and an Augusta-Richmond County emergency system that failed her.

TIMELINE OF THE EMERGENCY RESPONSE

It started with a 911 call from Nichoel Gaither from her home on April 21st at 4:39 a.m.

(Source: Gaither 911 Call)

“Do you need police fire or ambulance?” said a 911 dispatcher.

“(gasping) I can’t breathe!” said Nichoel Gaither.

“So you need an ambulance?” said a 911 dispatcher.

“Yes,” said Nichoel.

We analyzed records from that day and found in the early hours of the morning on April 21, 2021 and found the nearest available Gold Cross ambulance was too far away to respond quickly Nichoel’s call - which was a priority one call. Priority one calls are the most serious of emergency medical calls.

(Source: Gaither 911 Call)

“What’s the address of your emergency?” said a Gold Cross Dispatcher:

Nichoel Gaither: (heavy breathing) Oh God. I can’t breathe.

Gold Cross Dispatcher: You said you can’t breathe?

Nichoel Gaither: I can’t breathe!

Gold Cross Dispatcher: Okay let me get first responders from Richmond County.

Nichoel Gaither: I live by myself. I don’t know if I can make it to the door.

Gold Cross Dispatcher: Okay if you can’t make it to the front door, they will have to gain entry, okay? They will have to kick your door down.

Nichoel Gaither: Okay.

I-TEAM FINDS CONFUSING EMERGENCY RESPONSE POLICY AND PROCEDURES

To understand what happens next you first need to understand how 911 in Richmond County works. Remember the game of telephone? It’s like that. All 911 calls go straight to the county’s 911 center. The 911 dispatcher asks ‘police, fire, or ambulance?’ 911 dispatch then transfers the call the next telephone line. Emergency medical calls go to Gold Cross which is the private ambulance provider for the county. This is where it gets even more chaotic. A Gold Cross dispatcher talks with the caller over the phone while another Gold Cross dispatcher communicates with the ambulance crew and that first 911 dispatcher. In order to get a message to first responders, such as firefighters arriving at the scene before the ambulance crew, Gold Cross must call 911 dispatch who in turn relays the message.

(Source: Radio Communication Audio)

Gold Cross Dispatcher to 911 Dispatcher: “Hi it’s Allison from Gold Cross again. The caller at Crest Drive is still on the phone with the patient and fire department is ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door. She can’t get up to answer the door.”

911 Dispatcher to Gold Cross Dispatcher: “Okay, give me one second.”

Radio call shows the 911 dispatcher relays the message but does not stress the urgency of the situation to firefighters outside of Nichoel’s home.

911 Dispatcher to Augusta Fire: “Per Gold Cross, fire has permission to gain entry.”

Augusta Fire to 911 Dispatcher: “Well, the door is locked let me have S.O. at this location.”

S.O. stands for Sheriff’s Office deputy. Augusta Richmond County fire department’s forced entry policy factors in a number of variables before a firefighter can break into a person’s home, one being the urgency of the situation. However, the policy is confusing.

The policy reads “If a patient is unable to open the door, then firefighters can force entry.” The immediate line below reads “If patient is unconscious or incapacitated forced entry is permitted....request law enforcement to the scene and await their arrival prior to forcing entry.”

I-TEAM UNCOVERS COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

(Source: Radio Communication Audio)

911 Dispatcher to Gold Cross Dispatcher: “I guess they saying they are requesting an S.O. before they gain entry so they’re going to get so out.”

Gold Cross Dispatcher to 911 Dispatcher: “Well, I mean she is in bad shape. We have it on the recorded line that she consented for them to force entry she is in obvious distress, and she is getting worse.”

911 Dispatcher to Gold Cross Dispatcher: “Okay I let them know. I guess they’re checking to see if they are going to go without S.O. They’re still sending the deputy.”

Gold Cross Dispatcher to 911 Dispatcher: “Okay thank you so much. She needs help like minutes ago.”

Meanwhile, Nichoel uses every last bit of strength she has try to get to help.

(Source: Gaither 911 Call)

Gold Cross Dispatcher: Ma’am?

Nichoel Gaither: They’re still knock...

Gold Cross Dispatcher: They’re still knocking on the door?

Nichoel Gaither: I can’t make it. I fell on the floor.

Gold Cross Dispatcher: You fell on the floor?

Nichoel Gaither: I can’t make it. I can’t get to the door.

Gold Cross Dispatcher: Okay.

Firefighters wait outside of Nichoel’s door for 15 minutes for a deputy. It takes another six minutes for first responders to get to her.

(Source: Radio Communication Audio)

Gold Cross Dispatcher to 911 Dispatcher: We told them to gain entry, but I guess they keep knocking on the door instead, but the patient can hear them knocking and now she is just completely unresponsive.

Next, the I-Team requested body camera footage from the first Richmond County Sheriff’s Office deputy to respond to the scene.

(Source: Body Camera Video)

Deputy: Where’s the person?

Firefighter: They say she is having difficulty breathing but he didn’t want to go in yet.

Firefighter: This window on the end down here.

Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Deputy: Yes, sir.

Firefighter: Just go through there and open the front door.

Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Deputy: She alive? She alive?

Firefighter: (nods yes) she is talking. She ain’t talking? I thought y’all were talking to her.

The voice the fire lieutenant hears is not Nichoel’s. It’s the voice of the Gold Cross dispatcher. First responders found Nichoel’s body on the floor of the bedroom under the glow of her television. Her hand still holding onto what was Nichoel’s only hope, a cell phone with dispatch on the line.

(Source: Body Camera Video)

Deputy: Who called?

Firefighter: I am assuming she did.

Gold Cross Medic: She did. They lost contact with her on the phone. She called about respiratory distress and they lost contact with her on the phone. That’s why we breeched.

Firefighter: When did they lose contact with her on the phone?

Gold Cross Medic: About 15 minutes before we came in.

Firefighter: About 15 minutes? God.

Gold Cross Medic: You understand what the problem is?

Deputy: No.

Gold Cross Medic: It’s 15 minutes from our station and we got here, and fire is standing in the yard saying we don’t know if this is the right house or not, so we haven’t tried to enter. Dude you were told! 15 minutes of silence on the phone is what our dispatch listened to until we got into the house.

Deputy: Wow.

Gold Cross Medic: our dispatch listened to her stop breathing while waiting on us to get here they’re standing out in the dark.

Deputy: Looking pretty.

Richmond County Deputy Coroner: So, they got here within four minutes and wouldn’t open the damn door to help her?

The I-Team went by the house and found the mailbox was clearly marked. It’s the same mailbox where firefighters parked and waited 15 minutes before going inside to help Nichoel.

GAITHER FAMILY REACTS TO I-TEAM FINDINGS

“Right now, I don’t know how to feel. I don’t know how to feel. I would have never known any of this if you wouldn’t have contacted me,” Nichelle said to I-Team’s Liz Owens.

It’s even more difficult to understand for a nurse like Nichelle hearing about it from an investigative reporter, not from EMS, fire, dispatch or deputies. “I want answers. There has to be some accountability,” Nichelle said.

We don’t know if firefighters could have saved Nichoel had they acted immediately but it’s a question first responders asked themselves the day of her death.

(Source: Body Camera Video)

Deputy: You think you guys could have saved her?

Gold Cross: If they got here sooner started CPR sooner maybe. 15 minutes of down time.

Nichoel was a fighter. She beat cancer five years ago. She beat covid last year. “My sister is so brave. She used her last minutes to tell them she couldn’t breathe,” Nichelle said. Nichoel fought this time too, but in a life-threatening emergency you can’t fight alone.

(Source: Gaither 911 Call)

Nichoel Gaither: Oh God please help me.

Gold Cross Dispatcher: Ma’am they’re trying to get in.

Gold Cross: Ma’am?

Nichoel Gaither: ----

Gold Cross Dispatcher: Oh my God.

AUGUSTA-RICHMOND COUNTY FIRE CHIEF RESPONDS TO I-TEAM FINDINGS

The I-Team first reached out to the new chief in mid-July about the findings in our investigation. Six weeks later, he responded:

“The City of Augusta.... sends its deepest condolences to the patient’s family. The crew who responded to this incident followed the department’s forcible entry policy.... Augusta Fire is currently undertaking a review of its policies and procedures, including the forcible entry policy.”

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