Pittsburgh Reevaluates 911 Dispatch After Man's Death

Ambulance failed to reach Curtis Mitchell in snowstorm after two days of calls.

ByABC News
February 18, 2010, 5:25 PM

Feb. 18, 2010 — -- Pittsburgh officials are reevaluating 911 dispatch protocols after Curtis Mitchell, 50, of Pittsburgh, died early Sunday morning.

Mitchell's fiancee, Sharon Edge, 51, said she called 911 continually for two days when he complained of abdominal pains. But despite three dispatch attempts, ambulances failed to reach Mitchell and Edge's snowed-in home.

"I was calling every half hour to say we need an ambulance now, and they never came," Edge told ABC News. "They said an ambulance was on the way but they came to the bridge, not our house. They asked us to walk to the bridge but he couldn't walk."

Edge was particularly concerned for Mitchell because they had no lights or gas due to the storm. They were cold and scared.

"Saturday night was the last time he was alive," she said. "He tried to get out of bed to come to the living room, and I covered him with a blanket because we had no heat. He had shortness of breath and could hardly breathe. They said they would come as soon as they can but he couldn't walk."

Communication Breakdown

Joanna Doven, press secretary for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office, confirmed that 911 operators asked Mitchell and Edge to walk to a nearby bridge, noting that in the extreme circumstances of the two-foot snow, walking to meet an ambulance expedites rescue attempts.

Dover also confirmed that paramedics said if Mitchell wanted a ride to the hospital, he needed to walk out and meet the vehicle.

After review, The Department of Public safety in a report responding to the incident has since called that comment by paramedics "inappropriate." They said the main factor contributing to Mitchell's death was a serious communication breakdown.

On several occasions over the two days, Mitchell and Edge called paramedics only to give up on wait times and cancel requests, opting to stay home, medicate and attempt for Mitchell to sleep off the pain.

After cancellations, the 911 system treated each new call as a new incident. Had dispatchers and doctors known Mitchell's history, they would have treated new calls with a higher urgency level.

"Each call was seen as an individual request for assistance," the Department of Public Safety's report read. "Knowledge gained on previous calls was not communicated at the time of the next request.

"The current system ... works well when the system is not overwhelmed. However, during the first day of the winter emergency, the system required rapid processing of a large number of calls and formal paper documentation was for the most part abandoned."