Emergency responders are the heroes among us -- the ones who save lives every day. But, like other professionals, their heroic acts are sometimes overshadowed by the apparent inaction of a few. In 2009, two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on a break at a bakery allegedly failed to help a pregnant woman suffering from an asthma attack that ultimately proved fatal. They did call 911 but an ambulance didn't arrive until 11 minutes later.
One of the paramedics was later killed in an unrelated incident outside of a nightclub in Manhattan. The other is on trial for official misconduct and could face up to a year in prison.
People were shocked this could happen -- no one more so than New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who took to a press conference to share his outrage and disbelief.
"There is no excuse whatsoever, as far as I can see," he said.
Inspired by this real event, we hired actors to play two negligent EMTs and a stunt actress to play a woman in distress. We then rigged cameras on a busy sidewalk in Hoboken, N.J. to capture what unsuspecting bystanders would do when they witnessed paramedics who neglected their sworn duty because they were on a break.
As our stunt actress walked briskly down the sidewalk, heading off to catch the train, she pretended to suddenly feel faint as she reached for her head and then suddenly collapsed. Some bystanders seemed unsure how to proceed, but Carissa Tondorf didn't miss a beat, immediately rushing to the woman's side, even as the paramedics standing just a few feet away didn't move a muscle.
Tondorf immediately started to comfort our actress, telling her, "We're right here, there's an ambulance on the way."
Other bystanders started to stop and they turned to the EMT's for help but quickly learned, they were on their own. "Well I'm on break right now, I can't really do anything," our actor said.
Tondorf's face showed both shock and disappointment as she looked up at our paramedic telling him, "You look so bored about it."
But it didn't take long for her focus to shift back to our victim to keep her comfortable, even trying to cheer her up with a compliment: "Your hair still looks great."
And even when we instructed our paramedics to walk away, amazingly she kept her cool. After we introduced ourselves, she explained why.
"I didn't think I could change them, and I thought I could help her," she said.
When our victim collapsed again, a man rushed over, standing just a few feet back, unsure of how to proceed.
A "What Would You Do" staffer said she was calling 911 and the bystander naturally looked to the paramedics for help -- but their response was not what anyone would expect.
"I mean, I'd love to do something, but I gotta have a break. We've been going for 12 hours," our actor said.
The man shrugged, standing there in disbelief.
Another passerby stopped to see if she could help, but when our paramedics gave their "we're on break" excuse, the woman only responded with "yeah, okay" before turning and walking away.
Moments later, that lingering man walked past the scene again. Both the man and the woman told us later they didn't know what to do. They thought the paramedics knew best how to handle the situation.