Pittsburgh vows changes after man dies waiting on EMS

Chief: Short-term changes already implemented, long-term solutions planned

By Evan Buxbaum

PITTSBURGH — During 30 anxious hours as a blizzard raged, 10 calls went to 911 from one Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, house to get an ambulance for a sick man. But the ambulance never arrived, and the man died.

Now Pittsburgh officials are vowing to implement a series of changes to the city's emergency response system as a result of the death of 50-year-old Curtis Mitchell.

Mitchell's girlfriend, Sharon Edge, told CNN affiliate WTAE that she placed frequent 911 calls on the night of February 5, explaining repeatedly that Mitchell couldn't walk or move, and had to lie down with stomach pains. Mitchell made the initial calls himself, then Edge took over for him.

"And I kept calling back. Every half hour, I kept calling back," she said.

But even after three separate ambulance dispatches, emergency personnel failed to reach Edge and Mitchell at their home. One ambulance stopped just across a bridge, approximately two to four blocs from the house. By the time an ambulance was dispatched for a fourth time, Mitchell was dead.

Weather was a factor in the response, said Pittsburgh Medical Examiner Dr. Ron Roth, who also serves as the medical director for city's Emergency Operations Center. The city was in the midst of a blizzard, with nearly 2 feet of snow piling up in a relatively short period, Roth said in a report.

"The poor road conditions resulted in challenges to emergency vehicles responding to calls. ... EMS requests more than doubled the average, which coupled with the snow, significantly hindered their capacity," Roth said in the report.

But at a news conference Wednesday, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the actions of EMS workers in the case were simply "unacceptable," and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl declared such situations "won't be tolerated."

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for the mayor, said that hazardous road conditions immobilized three of the city's 13 ambulances as they became stuck in the snow. Recognizing this, EMS responders asked if Mitchell could venture out to meet them, she said.

"Asking patients to walk to the ambulance is a relatively unusual request," said Roth in his report. But due to the inclement weather, "asking callers to walk to the truck became a viable alternative that worked on many calls," he said.

Huss, the public safety director, also addressed that situation at the news conference on Wednesday, saying that Pittsburgh invests a lot of resources in its public safety department.

"You get out of the damn truck and you walk to the residence. That's what needed to happen here," Huss said.

"Short-term changes" have already been made in the emergency response system and the city will continue to work on long-term solutions, Ravenstahl said.

Huss said an administrative investigation will continue and determine what actions, if any, will be taken against employees involved.

Officials are currently in the process of "reviewing all the 911 calls, all the radio transmissions, and all the phone calls associated with the incident," Huss said.

The process will take time because the incident occurred over more than 30 hours. "Once a thorough investigation is done, action will be taken," he said.

Roth's report contained more than two dozen recommendations for improving EMS procedures and ensuring that this situation does not repeat. Proposals include reviewing call cancellation policies, promising first responders for all emergency requests, and re-evaluating "levels of emergency" during the call screening process.

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Chief Forensic Investor Edward Strimlan told CNN that an autopsy has been completed on Mitchell, but results can take anywhere from eight to 20 weeks, and an official cause of death remains pending.

Meanwhile, Mitchell's girlfriend, Edge, would like somebody held responsible, whether it be the city or the paramedics involved. "He shouldn't have had to die the way he died, because he was suffering," she said.

"It hurts, I'm all alone now. Somebody that I love is gone and I can't do nothing about it."

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