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“What’s taking so long?” Couple files complaint after call to 911 flagged as ‘non-emergency’

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MILWAUKEE— They called for emergency help, but say they got a glorified cab ride.  Now a local couple is asking the FOX6 Investigators to find out why it took so long for help to arrive.

Emergency responders call it 'siren anxiety.' You think it's taking too long for help to arrive because you are in a stressful situation. Our investigation finds there could be something else that's slowing down your ambulance response. It might just be something  you said -- or didn't say.

In a  medical emergency, every second  counts. But when you call 911, so does every word. Because what you say to 911 could be the difference between an urgent response, and a more deliberate one.

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Carole Last and her husband, Ron, filed a complaint with the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission over the response to his medical emergency.

Carole Last and her husband Ron own Last Stop Motors in Racine. They are also regulars at Sobelman's Pub and Grill in Milwaukee. That's where they stopped for lunch on a recent Sunday.

"And shortly after we got our food Ron just started not feeling well," Carole said.

"And I sweat so much it was like I just got out of a pool," Ron recalled.

Seconds after complaining that he wasn't feeling well, Ron slumped over on his barstool, unconscious.

"Bam, when you're out, you're out," he said.

His wife began to panic.

"And then I started screaming out, 'Somebody dial 911. Somebody dial 911,' I don't know what's happening here."

A Sobelman's worker made the call.  Then a second call.  And then another worker made a third call.



"And everyone was like, 'What is going on? " Carole recalled. "Why is this taking so long?!"

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Dave Sobelman says his employee did the best he could in explaining a medical emergency.

Restaurant owner Dave Sobelman wasn't there at the time, but says his staff was worried.

"911 means we want somebody here ASAP,"  he said. "The 911 operator was a little curt with my waitress in saying, we already got the second call."

Carole Last said the wait was at least 20 minutes. "Some people have told me it was 30, 35, 40 minutes, she said.  Records obtained by FOX6 Investigators show it was less.

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Scott Mickelsen says it's common for people in an emergency to experience 'siren anxiety.'

Scott Mickelson of Bell Ambulance says it's not uncommon for people in a stressful situation to think the response is taking longer than it really is,.

"Time slows down," he said. "Seconds seem like minutes."

He calls it siren anxiety.

"You are waiting on the siren, but when you don't hearing the siren, what's going on?"

Time stamped audio files indicate the first call came in at 1:01pm.  The second call was placed seven minutes later, at 1:08pm. The third call came six minutes after that, at 1:14pm. By the time an ambulance crew was at the patient's side, 15 minutes had passed.  That's far less than the half hour Carole thought, but still 6 minutes longer than an emergency response with full lights and sirens is supposed to take.

But that's just the thing.

The Milwaukee Fire Department didn't send an ambulance with lights and sirens. Dispatchers only requested a private ambulance with no lights or sirens.

"It was flagged as a non-emergency BLS response," Mickelsen said.

BLS stands for Basic Life Support.

"'They just need to remember that we are coming. We are responding," he said.

According to Bell's contract with the city, they have 15 minutes to get a non-emergency call.

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Heidi Mueller, Milwaukee Fire Department Dispatch Manager

The Lasts filed a complaint with the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission and, because of that, the fire department won't go into specifics about why the call was deemed a non-emergency. They did invite FOX6 to their 911 call center to see how decisions are made.

"Every call is based on information received at the time receiving it," said Heidi Mueller, Dispatch Manager for the fire department's 911 call center.

For a little more than a year, Milwaukee Fire Department has been using the Emergency Medical Dispatch -- or EMD --Protocol. It's a standardized-system with questions that are scripted. That means your choice of words can dramatically impact how a call is handled.

"The attitude of the Fire Department was, you know, it was the caller's fault," Carole said.

As her husband was doused in sweat, drifting in and out of consciousness, Carole says she feared for his life. Halfway across the restaurant, the worker who called 9-1-1 painted a different picture. He told the dispatcher he thought the patient had a seizure or had "passed out," but that the patient was "conscious right now and he's breathing." In a second call, he told the dispatcher "the episode is over."

Mueller says they can only go with what they're told. Carole says the caller is not a doctor.

"He has no training, no medical background," Carole said.

She believes the dispatcher should have asked more questions.

"He could have had a heart attack, he could have been having a stroke," she said.

Ron Last eventually spent three days at St. Luke's Hospital and was diagnosed with a "neurocardial dysfunction," according to records provided to FOX 6 News by the Lasts. He's fine now and back at work, but his wife says that's no reason to dismiss their concerns.

"It could have just as easily turned out very different," Carole said.

"Do you think this call was handled properly?" asked FOX6 Investigator, Bryan Polcyn.
"Yes," Mickelsen responded.

Dave Sobelman says his workers did the best they could.

"I don't want to come down hard on the paramedics. They got a tough job," he said.

Carole and Ron Last believe emergency responders could do better.

"We would have gotten help sooner if we had attempted to try to put him in our car," she said.

Ron put it more bluntly.

"You don't call 911 for a cab ride."

The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission says it plans to have a disposition on the complaint next week (July 25-29). Meanwhile, Mueller says when you call 911, to be as specific as possible about the most serious symptoms. Is the person breathing? Awake? Bleeding? Are they having chest pain?

If symptoms get worse after you hang up, call back. It could change the kind of response you get.

10 comments

  • Mkedoc8855

    “She believes the dispatcher could have asked more questions.”
    Well, that’s the point of the scripted software. The computer program is asking the questions. A few years ago I worked at a call center in Appleton that used EMD, and this call sounds like it was handled correctly based on the info the dispatch center had. I noticed Fox 6 didn’t reach out to the company that makes the EMD software. That would be the real culprit.

    • Mel

      Thank you for telling people that. That way you aren’t getting blamed. Scripted software should be non existent. There should just be a list of qualified conditions for immediate pick up. Gees.

      • Mkedoc8855

        Scripted software (EMD) is used all over the United States, and has saved thousands of lives. By your standard, this person who fainted…and is now awake….at a bar….would qualify? Then we go back to every ambulance going to every call lights and sirens. Deaths of EMTs, Firefighters increase. Driving lights and sirens kills a lot of people.

  • TheVision

    “You don’t call 911 for a cab ride.”…. Tell that to the people who call 911 for non-life threatening situations. No cheese on your cheese burger, baby ducks close to a street, my neighbor blew his grass clippings on my driveway.

    • GHOST OF CHIEF BRIER

      And literally, the call attempting to order a cab…..it’s happened, and more than once.

  • walloffthenorthside

    I stubbed my toe an done messed up my pedicure. I need an ambalamps at 2315 Norf 17th st. It be bleedin an hurtin.

  • Arnie Jenks

    Years ago if you needed an ambulance, you called the Fire Dept and they responded lickity split (with caution). Now they want to ask you all these questions so they can tell the private ambulance how to respond. Response time goes down, taxpayers cost goes up. Like a lot of things, you are paying more for less and that should not be a consideration when life is involved. Seconds count.

    • Mkedoc8855

      You should educate yourself Arnie. I worked for a private ambulance in Appleton years ago, before med school. First, the privates were around in Milwaukee doing EMS long before the fire department. While not all private ambulance companies are the same, I can tell you, there are a couple good ones in Milwaukee, along with some REALLY crappy ones. Your taxes would skyrocket if the city didn’t contract with the privates. That means the fire department would need another 20 ambulances, with staffing, at government union pay/benefits. The Milwaukee County EMS system already bleeds out millions each year, double that number without the private ambulances. Every EMS system in the country is trying to figure out how to run less calls with lights and sirens. Lights and sirens only saves seconds to a few minutes, but is incredibly dangerous.

    • Jo blow

      Years ago we had 35% more firefighters. We also had several more apparatus to get to 911 calls. Also the new system is to make sure no one can sue the city when this happens more and more because the cut backs to the EMS system. Everyone wants tax cuts = slower response times. Also no one complains when its a inner city person getting delayed treatment but when someone at sobelman’s gets delayed treatment its a big deal???

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