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Grieving mother questions 911 response

Twenty-one minutes after the first 911 call and about 17 minutes after officials dispatched a unit, Keith Zapoticky was taken to a hospital; he was placed on life support and died two days later

The Citizens’ Voice

FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Phyllis Zapoticky wants answers.

She wants to know if a faster response by emergency crews might have saved the life of her son, Keith Zapoticky, who died after suffering a severe asthma attack at their Franklin Township home on June 21, 2015.

Keith Zapoticky, 22, described by family and co-workers as a carefree young man who liked to laugh and have fun, was home alone that day.

Early that Sunday afternoon — the first day of summer — he had done some yardwork outside the home in the Valley View mobile home park, off Valley View Road.

Despite being a lifelong asthmatic with allergies who also smoked, Keith Zapoticky often cut the grass and tended to the yard, his mother said, noting that he loved the outdoors.

He needed to use an inhaler sometimes, but he had his asthma “pretty much under control,” she said.

On this day something went wrong. Keith Zapoticky suffered a severe asthma attack. His inhaler did not help. Struggling to breathe, he dialed 911 from his cellphone.

He reached the Luzerne County 911 call center.

That was the first place precious time ticked away, thanks to protocol and technology.

Most landline phones in Franklin Township are wired to send 911 calls to the Wyoming County 911 center, since the township’s designated first responder for Basic Life Support, or BLS, calls is Franklin-Northmoreland Ambulance Association, based in Northmoreland Township, Wyoming County.

Cellphone calls to 911 from Franklin Township sometimes bounce off a cell tower and get directed to the Luzerne County emergency center. If that happens, the Luzerne County call-taker gathers information and then transfers the call to Wyoming County, per protocol confirmed by Luzerne County emergency officials.

Distress call
At 2:34 p.m. Keith Zapoticky’s 911 call comes through to Luzerne County, according to recordings of the call obtained by The Citizens’ Voice.

He is clearly in distress.

“I ... can’t … breathe,” he says slowly, struggling to make clear his address — 512 Hill Top Drive — to the call-taker. After confirming the address, the call-taker asks Keith Zapoticky why he cannot breathe.

“Asthma attack,” he replies faintly.

Keith Zapoticky, in what sounds like a supreme effort to speak, breathe and live, tells the call-taker that he used his inhaler but it did not help. Then his side of the line goes silent.

The call-taker asks multiple times if he is still there. There is no response. The recording ends after slightly more than two minutes.

On the next recording, at 2:37 p.m., a Luzerne County dispatcher calls Wyoming County 911 to relay information about the situation. The Luzerne dispatcher mentions the line is still open and the caller has possibly passed out.

The one-minute recording ends right after the Wyoming dispatcher asks the Luzerne dispatcher to “get Medic 33 going for me, please.”

Confusing protocols
Medic 33 is Kunkle Fire and Ambulance Rescue, the designated first responder for Advanced Life Support, or ALS, calls in Franklin Township. Ambulances in ALS units are staffed by paramedics and contain more advanced medical equipment than do BLS units staffed by emergency medical technicians. They are dispatched to the most serious medical calls.

Kunkle Ambulance is dispatched by Luzerne County.

That means it could potentially take three calls to dispatch an ALS unit to an emergency in Franklin Township: A call for help from a cellphone, received at Luzerne County 911; then a call from Luzerne to Wyoming dispatchers, to dispatch a BLS unit; then a follow-up call from Wyoming to Luzerne, to dispatch an ALS unit.

For Keith Zapoticky, nine minutes ticked by between the second call and the third.

Death and questions
At 2:46 p.m. — 12 minutes after Keith Zapoticky’s 911 call — a Wyoming County dispatcher calls Luzerne County 911 to ask if an ALS unit has been dispatched to the Zapoticky home.

The Luzerne County dispatcher does not seem aware that Wyoming County had requested an ALS unit at the end of the previous call.

“Do you need ALS to respond up there?” he asks.

After the Wyoming dispatcher quickly says yes, the Luzerne dispatcher replies that both Kunkle Ambulance units are tied up. He then says he will dispatch an ALS unit from Back Mountain Regional EMS, the closest agency available.

At 2:55 p.m. a member of the Back Mountain ambulance crew reports they are on the scene and the patient is in cardiac arrest.

That was 21 minutes after Keith Zapoticky called 911 and about 17 minutes after Wyoming County first asked Luzerne County to dispatch an ALS unit.

Medical crews took Keith Zapoticky to Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, where he was placed on life support.

He died two days later, on June 23.

As a Gift of Life donor, his organs and bone marrow were donated to help save many lives, his mother said.

A mother seeks answers
Phyllis Zapoticky said she has questioned whether her son’s life could have been saved since the day he died. She called the seemingly delayed dispatch of an ALS medical team “completely unacceptable.”

“What happened that day was disturbing,” she said. “I am not satisfied.”

She engaged Kingston attorney Michael Lombardo to explore her legal options last summer, she said. After months of obtaining information and consulting with medical experts, they decided not to pursue a lawsuit.

Lombardo confirmed that Phyllis Zapoticky had hired him and that after extensive research he advised her they would likely not have a strong case.

He declined to speak in detail for publication, noting that he has a background in emergency services himself. Despite that, Lombardo said it seemed clear there are serious questions as to how dispatchers handled Keith Zapoticky’s desperate call for help.

Location might have played a role in the tragic end of her son’s life, Phyllis Zapoticky said. Her house sits a few dozen yards from the Dallas Township border, within sight of the sign for the township line along Valley View Road.

Had Keith Zapoticky placed a 911 call from Dallas Township, the entire call would have been dispatched through Luzerne County. There would have been no calling back and forth between 911 workers in different counties, and no potential confusion over ALS versus BLS, she said.

It also would have taken less time for an ambulance to arrive had a Luzerne County-based unit been dispatched right away, since there is an ambulance station in Dallas Township about two miles from her home, she said.

Who decides?
Luzerne County 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans noted that dispatchers have no choice as to which emergency response agency to dispatch first. They are bound by the decisions of municipal leaders, who designate specific agencies as first responders for emergency situations, per state law, he said.

Rosencrans declined repeated requests to comment about the Zapoticky case for this article — with one exception. He noted that Franklin Township supervisors established the protocol for emergency response in that township, with separate BLS and ALS first-response agencies dispatched by different counties.

Dispatchers and officials in Luzerne and Wyoming counties have no discretion to alter that protocol, Rosencrans said.

Eric Williams, a Franklin Township supervisor since 2014, said township supervisors designated Franklin-Northmoreland and Kunkle as the township’s first-response agencies in 2013, shortly before he took office.

The best way to handle emergency response is an ongoing topic of discussion among officials of the mostly rural township, Williams said.

“I want the best response time for all of our residents,” he said.

Communication issues between 911 personnel in Luzerne and Wyoming counties affect Franklin Township and other municipalities near the Luzerne/Wyoming county line, since the two counties use different software to track emergency calls, Williams said.

For example, Wyoming County dispatchers might not know if Kunkle Ambulance is available to respond to an ALS call in Franklin Township due to the counties’ differing computer systems, according to Williams.

State legislators are considering a bill that would mandate a unified system of technology for 911 centers across Pennsylvania, Williams said.

‘A good, sweet guy’
Keith Zapoticky was “just a good, sweet guy who would do anything to help,” said Louise Haughwout, manager of Bricks & Stones Supply, the building supplies company in Forty Fort where Keith Zapoticky worked.

Other Bricks & Stones employees recalled that Keith Zapoticky would work hard but stay cheerful and crack jokes at the same time.

That breezy attitude helped Keith Zapoticky get through tough times growing up, said his older brother, Kyle Zapoticky.

Their father died when Keith Zapoticky was young, and while he attended Dallas High School, Keith Zapoticky also had to deal with the sudden death of a man he considered a stepfather, Kyle Zapoticky said.

Despite those losses and his chronic asthma, Keith Zapoticky earned a GED, got a job and went out of his way to help people as he lived an active life, according to Kyle Zapoticky.

Keith Zapoticky loved animals and nature and never let asthma stop him from enjoying the outdoors, his mother and brother said.

While she has decided not to file a lawsuit, Phyllis Zapoticky made clear her anger and frustration with the Luzerne County 911 center.

“It infuriates me that they want more money,” she said, referring to the center’s pleas to county government for more funding. “More training is what they need.”

But mostly she talked about her son.

“He was too young not to be saved,” she said. “Other than the asthma, that kid was in perfect health.”

Keith Zapoticky’s kind nature developed early and stuck with him for all of his short life, his mother said.

“He was always happy, willing to do anything for you,” she said. “If he had five dollars in his pocket and his friend needed it, he would give it to him.”

Keith Zapoticky enjoyed joking with people and helping them cheer up, Phyllis Zapoticky said.

“I would come home from work in a rotten mood,” she said. “Within five minutes that kid would have me laughing.”

Phyllis Zapoticky, in an email sent last week, said she is bracing for Mother’s Day and the anniversary of her son’s death. The last line of her message read:

“I just hope and pray this will never happen to anyone else.”

Timeline of 911 calls on June 21, 2015:
• 2:34 p.m.: Keith Zapoticky calls 911 from his Franklin Township home in the midst of a severe asthma attack. The call is directed to Luzerne County 911, even though Wyoming County handles most 911 calls from Franklin Township. During the call, Zapoticky’s side of the line goes silent.

• 2:37 p.m.: A Luzerne County 911 dispatcher calls Wyoming County 911 to relay information about the call and report the line is still open, with the caller possibly unresponsive. The Wyoming County dispatcher asks Luzerne County to dispatch an Advanced Life Support (ALS) unit to the scene.

• 2:46 p.m.: Wyoming County 911 calls Luzerne County to ask if Luzerne has dispatched an ALS unit. A Luzerne dispatcher says no ALS unit had been dispatched but says he will dispatch one right away.

• 2:55 p.m. An ALS ambulance crew member reports they are on the scene and the patient is in cardiac arrest.

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