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Dispatch at fault for death

Published April 19, 2007


SPRING HILL - With his 75-year-old stepfather growing seriously ill Tuesday afternoon, a distressed Spring Hill man dials 911.

"My dad. He's been ... he's been sick. Really bad," the 35-year-old son tells Hernando County Sheriff's Office dispatcher John Ellis.

Ellis is calm as he asks questions. He's a pro in these types of situations; a bit rusty after a 2 1/2 year-hiatus as a road deputy but a commended dispatcher with more than two years of previous experience.

Ellis logs the emergency and calls for an ambulance. But this quick action leads to a mixup.

No ambulance is ever sent to the Wellington Road home. After waiting 13 minutes, the son tried to drive his stepfather to get help. He makes it to a walk-in clinic 5 miles away where his stepfather collapses.

Minutes later, the elderly man is pronounced dead at Spring Hill Regional Hospital.

The incident is raising questions about the dispatch protocols just 17 days after the county changed the emergency response system.

Hernando County Sheriff's Office and fire officials met with the son Wednesday morning to apologize. Sheriff Richard Nugent said the incident is under investigation.

Citing privacy concerns, Nugent would not identify the man who died or the members of the man's family.

"We want to assume responsibility for this," said Hernando County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Mike Hensley.

Bill Kicklighter, the Sheriff's Office director who oversees the dispatchers, blamed the incident on "human error."

He explained how it happened:

Ellis failed to see a message on the dispatch screen telling him to forward the 911 call to the Spring Hill Fire Rescue office because the call originated from within the Spring Hill Fire District. Instead, Ellis sent the call at 3:09 p.m. to Paul George, a dispatcher for the Hernando County Fire Rescue, who was sitting 15 feet away.

George, who handles all rescue calls outside of Spring Hill, immediately recognized that the call had been sent to the wrong place. He yelled to Ellis to transfer the call to Spring Hill Fire Rescue.

Ellis, who was still on the phone with the caller, never heard George. George didn't wait to get the required acknowledgement and he canceled the call for a Hernando County ambulance.

"Normally, you get an acknowledgement," Kicklighter said. "It just didn't happen. They made a mistake."

During this time, Ellis was still on the phone. "An ambulance is on the way ...," Ellis told the son 58 seconds into the call. He repeated the assurance twice more during the two-minute call before hanging up to answer other 911 calls.

Hensley said he had "no way of knowing" whether a proper response would have saved the man's life. Hensley said that the son told him that doctors said his stepfather probably wouldn't have made it even if he made it to the hospital sooner.

"He harbored no ill will," Hensley said.

The decision of which calls go to the county's two main fire departments is a relatively new one. Starting April 2, the county consolidated part of its emergency response. Spring Hill Fire Rescue previously handled all medical emergency calls. Now, county calls are taken separately.

But county and Spring Hill fire officials were quick to not blame the politically motivated changes for the mixup.

"It was a human error and that can happen in any dispatch center in the country," Spring Hill Fire Chief J.J. Morrison said. 'This has nothing to do with recent changes in dispatch."

John Frank can be reached at or 754-6114.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 11:26:18]

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