Pa. EMS under review after man dies waiting for ambulance

City officials are investigating handling of 911 calls

By Tony LaRussa
The Pittsburgh Tribune Review

HAZELWOOD, Pa. — Pittsburgh's public safety director said Tuesday that the city's emergency medical service "failed" a Hazelwood man who died while waiting nearly 30 hours for an ambulance during the 22-inch snowstorm that crippled the city.

"To me this is simple, when someone calls for help, you get there," said Michael Huss. "I'm deeply disappointed, angry and most of all sad that this event occurred. We failed this person."

Curtis Mitchell, 50, of Chaplain Way, was pronounced dead at 8:45 a.m. Feb. 7, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office. A cause and manner of death is pending toxicology results.

Mitchell's widow, Sharon Edge, 51, made the first call to 911 shortly after 2 a.m. Feb. 6, according to records, which show 10 subsequent calls were placed.

In each of the calls, Edge and Mitchell remain calm as they explain he is suffering from severe abdominal pain, has difficulty breathing and was in the hospital about 10 days earlier with the same complaint.

Edge said Tuesday that she believes Mitchell, who she also referred to as her boyfriend, would be alive if he had received medical attention.

"I'm just trying to get answers about what happened," Edge said. "I feel he would still be here if they got the ambulance to us. We called, and called and called, but they never came."

Pittsburgh EMS Chief Robert McCaughan said each time a call to 911 was placed, it was canceled by the Emergency Operations Center.

In one of the calls, Mitchell asks if paramedics are too backed up "can they come back later in the afternoon?" The comment resulted in the call being canceled.

Part of the breakdown in the system was dispatchers not knowing details from previous calls that were placed, according to Dr. Ron Roth, medical director for the public safety department.

"Each call was seen as an individual request for assistance," Roth wrote in a review of the incident. "Knowledge gained on previous calls was not communicated at the time of the next request."

As a result, dispatchers repeatedly asked Mitchell to walk several blocks to meet the ambulance at the Elizabeth Avenue Bridge because the vehicle could not get to his home because of the snow.

"It was clear ... by the second call that he could not walk to the ambulance," Roth wrote.

While Huss acknowledged that emergency responders faced extraordinary circumstances during the storm, he was adamant that the department's failure to provide Mitchell with medical treatment was "unacceptable" and that changes are needed to correct problems.

"The fact is, the guy needed help," Huss said. "Simply getting this patient to the hospital is all that would have needed to happen."

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