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911 can't help choking woman

By CAMILLE C. SPENCER
Published April 11, 2007


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NEW PORT RICHEY - The call came in to Pasco's 911 center at 9:14 p.m. March 24.

Jennie Montanino, dispatcher: 911, what is your emergency?

Chris Cooper: My girlfriend's choking.

Cooper didn't know how to do the Heimlich maneuver. Montanino, who is not yet certified in emergency medical dispatch, was not qualified to talk him through it.

Montanino asked three times for a trained dispatcher to help, according to Pasco County records released Tuesday. Several co-workers heard dispatch supervisor David Cook respond:

"I am not getting on with a hysterical caller."

Seven minutes after the distraught boyfriend first called 911, Cook picked up the line and talked Cooper through the Heimlich maneuver. It didn't work.

Paramedics arrived a few minutes later. Nancy McGhee, 37, was dead.

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McGhee had choked on a piece of steak at Cooper's home in Land O'Lakes.

According to county documents, while Cooper begged for help and Montanino was asking for assistance, Cook was on the phone joking with someone from the Sheriff's Office.

Montanino "yelled out for emergency medical dispatch and no one responded," co-worker Judie Faille wrote. Montanino "repeatedly threw her arms up in the air in frustration."

Pasco County has 29 dispatchers and supervisors. Only 18 have certification in emergency medical dispatch, or EMD. The state doesn't require all dispatchers to have EMD training. Local requirements vary from one county to the next.

Pasco's other 11 dispatchers, including Montanino, will be certified after completing a course that ends April 27. In the meantime, when a 911 call requires that level of assistance, they are supposed to ask for help from someone with the training.

According to written employee accounts, Montanino asked for help three times. One of her co-workers, Dan Dede, echoed her calls for help twice.

According to a letter Montanino wrote about the incident, lead communications officer Maureen Thomas said, "I am not getting on."

Thomas' written response: "I do not remember being asked to do (emergency medical dispatch) or saying that I would not get on the phone."

But several co-workers distinctly remember Cook, the dispatch supervisor, declining to help because he didn't want to deal with a "hysterical" caller.

Eventually, Cook got on the phone and explained the Heimlich maneuver, which can help dislodge items from a choking victim's windpipe. Cooper put down the phone to try it.

"He left the freakin' phone," Cook muttered, according to the 911 tape.

When that didn't work, Cook passed the caller back to Montanino. Several dispatchers said Cook slammed the phone on his desk and said, "I'm over this already."

Cooper was sobbing as McGhee died, frustrated that nothing he did was working, and help wasn't coming fast enough.

The ambulance came 11 minutes after Cooper called 911. The closest units were fighting a house fire, according to county records, so responders had to come over from another district.

John Fatolitis, a shift supervisor who later reviewed the 911 tape, urged his bosses to investigate.

"Since our training program puts call takers live without EMD training," he wrote, "it's up to supervisors and (lead communications officers) to monitor these employees and give priority assistance when needed and requested.

"Could we have made a difference? We will probably never know."

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Pasco officials began investigating the day after McGhee's death. Cook was placed on paid leave. Then, before officials concluded their investigation last week, Cook, 58, announced he would take an early retirement.

He didn't return calls Tuesday for comments.

His 18-year tenure with county dispatch has been a mixed bag, according to his personnel file.

He received mostly positive performance evaluations, although a 1993 evaluation said he "can sometimes be short with public and field (personnel)" and has "little patience with stupidity." He was promoted to supervisor in 1996, only to be demoted a few months later without any explanation in the file.

He was promoted back to supervisor in 2003. Earlier last month, however, he received a verbal warning for falling asleep twice during a shift.

Thomas, the lead communications officer, has been on sick leave since April 4. Officials are also looking into her role in the March 24 call, human resources director Barbara DeSimone said.

DeSimone said Montanino did everything she could.

Dispatchers, who work 12-hour shifts, routinely deal with the stressful task of handling other people's crises, said Scott McDermid, deputy chief of the state's Emergency Medical Services.

"That is a very, very difficult job to have," he said. "Some people are good at it, and some people aren't."

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McGhee's family has not yet heard the tape, but they wonder whether anything more could have been done to save her life.

"It sounds to me that somebody dropped the ball here," said McGhee's older brother Richard, 38, of Mount Vernon, Ill. "They shouldn't have lost their patience."

After paramedics arrived at Cooper's home, word reached dispatch that McGhee had died.

According to written accounts from several coworkers, Cook responded:

"She must have bitten off more than she can chew."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or cspencer@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 11, 2007, 16:16:25]


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