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A shocking disregard for life at 911 center

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published April 12, 2007


Callers to 911 seeking help in emergency situations are entitled to the undivided attention of the people in the county's dispatch center. What they don't deserve is snarky commentary, reticence to perform job duties and incompetence or negligence from the county employees charged with assisting in life-and-death situations.

But that is the scenario that greeted Chris Cooper when he dialed 911 at 9:14 p.m. March 24.

Cooper's girlfriend, Nancy McGhee, 37, was choking on a piece of meat in their Land O'Lakes home. Cooper's call came to Jennie Montanino, a dispatcher who is not yet certified to provide emergency medical instructions over the phone.

Montanino asked supervisors for help. She asked again and again, as did her co-worker Dan Dede. Montanino eventually yelled and threw her hands up in the air in frustration when nobody responded.

Maureen Thomas, the lead emergency communications officer, was working a non-emergency utilities call, but said she would not get on the line, according to statements from other dispatcher center workers.

More egregious is the behavior of her boss, David Cook, the supervisor on duty. Cook said he would not get on with a hysterical caller. He relented seven minutes after Cooper first called and tried to give him instructions on the Heimlich maneuver. Eventually Cook threw the phone down and said "I'm over it."

Montanino took over and tried to give instructions to Cooper. McGhee was pronounced dead at the scene by the ambulance crew, which arrived 11 minutes after Cooper called.

According to statements from other dispatchers, Cook, the supervisor, using profane and derogatory language, said:

"See, he's not listening."

"I told you I couldn't get a thing out of a hysterical caller."

'"Another one bites the dust."

"I guess she bit off more than she could chew."

The dispatchers should have told Cooper to try cardiopulmonary resuscitation since McGhee was unconscious, according to emergency procedures. But that oversight is of little relevance if trained personnel can't be bothered to get on the line to do their job.

Dispatcher Montanino is blameless, doing all that she could, including twice calling back when Cooper became increasingly hysterical and hung up the phone. She and the county's other dispatchers will complete training later this month to be certified to provide emergency medical instructions.

Thomas told investigators she does not recall refusing Montanino's plea for assistance. At the minimum, she needs retraining in establishing priorities. Aiding choking victims is more imperative than a call regarding utilities.

Pasco County's top-level administrators, meanwhile, need to review their emergency staffing levels and training protocol to ensure the episode is not repeated. Public safety can't be compromised by employee arrogance or ignorance.

Cook escaped punishment, despite his belligerence, by retiring in the middle of the investigation. It is the only honorable behavior he has demonstrated in this incident.

A written statement from one of his underlings, dispatcher Judie Faille, who was on duty that evening, accurately surmises Cook's fate.

"There is no punishment or disciplinary action befitting someone's negligence resulting in the loss of life."

Indeed.