Pittsburgh Reevaluates 911 Dispatch After Man's Death

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

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."

'We Failed This Guy'

The Department of Public Safety report laid out recommendations to amend the process, including improving recording methods, reevaluating how calls are cancelled, planning for future responses during major events and utilizing alternative vehicles such as fire trucks.

Still, "the response was unacceptable and inadequate," Doven told ABC News, "We failed this guy, we know we did, and we are taking steps to make sure this doesn't happen again. The public will see changes.

"We are changing the dispatching method right now. If there were a snowstorm tonight, people would not be waiting," Doven said. "On Saturday, our resources were severely strained. Unfortunately, somebody died and we should have gotten them. They shouldn't have died.

"We have the resources to get to this man the first time he called and we didn't get there," Doven added. "We need to be more reliable and more self-reliant. You either put on your boots and shovel your way there or you call fire."

Director of Public Safety Michael Huss echoed Doven's sentiments in a news conference Tuesday.

"You get out of the damn truck and you walk to the residence," Huss said.

Left in the Cold

As for Edge, "One of the chiefs of the ambulance called to apologize," she said.

"Paramedics should have walked," she added. "But now I am the one left in the cold. I don't have my boyfriend. The mayor can't bring him back. I want the drivers of the ambulance to be responsible for what they did."

Edge now awaits an autopsy report. As more information about Mitchell's condition has been reported, including previous hospital stays and medication history, it seems possible that Mitchell's symptoms may have been pancreatic.

All Edge knows is that Mitchell died in pain.

"I fell asleep and then tried to wake him up but I couldn't wake him up," she said. "He was cold and I couldn't move him. Last thing he told me was that he loved me -- that he was sick and dying and couldn't take the pain no more."

Plans to Sue

Once Mitchell is cremated and a memorial service has been held, Edge would like to take legal action against the city.

"He was a good person, a very nice person, would help anyone in need. Everyone loved him. I don't want this to happen to nobody else."

Safety officials have spoken to Edge and have sent their deepest condolences, Doven said.

"We are here to assist in anything she may need," she added.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events