Pasco changes 911 calls policy

Dispatchers must now receive medical training to be able to handle emergency calls.

Published May 14, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Prompted by an incident in which 911 dispatchers failed to help as a woman choked to death, Pasco County has changed its policy to require dispatchers to get emergency medical training before taking calls solo.

Since 1994, Pasco dispatchers were allowed to work up to a year before getting certified in emergency medical dispatch. If they answered a call requiring medical instructions, they were supposed to get a trained supervisor on the line.

But that was before the night of March 24, when Nancy Jane McGhee, 37, of Land O'Lakes died choking on a piece of steak as her boyfriend failed to get help through 911.

Dispatcher Jennie Montanino lacked medical training when she took the call. She asked for help three times. According to written accounts from several co-workers, lead dispatcher Maureen Thomas declined to get on the line, and supervisor David Cook said, "I'm not getting on with a hysterical caller."

Cook eventually got on the line to offer instructions on the Heimlich maneuver - seven minutes after McGhee's boyfriend called 911.

"The inactions ... go against the grain of every standard of conduct that we live by in Emergency Services, " wrote Fire Chief Anthony Lopinto in a review Monday outlining policy change.

Under the new policy, new hires will get emergency medical dispatch training as part of their orientation. A trained dispatcher will be on the line with them until their training is complete.

Although the incident prompted the policy change, Lopinto concluded the problem was due to Cook and Thomas - not a system that's "viable, safe and dependable." Reached separately Monday, county commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Michael Cox agreed the problem boiled down to two bad employees. They said the policy change is appropriate.

"Obviously, we should have never had this happen in the first place, " Hildebrand said, describing it as "a terrible, terrible isolated incident."

Cook, an 18-year employee who had been warned twice about sleeping on the job, was suspended and retired in April amid the investigation. Thomas, a 14-year veteran, resigned last month under the threat of being fired.

McGhee's family plans to sue, although no legal notice has been received by the county. An attorney for her mother has requested records from Pasco.

Lopinto found no fault with Montanino or top 911 manager Thomas O'Brien, who started in October 2006.

"It's difficult for me to hold someone responsible for something that I don't think was foreseeable, " Lopinto said.

Lopinto said he and Fire Rescue are as "angry" as any resident about the case, and reported how Fire Rescue responded:

- All dispatchers but one completed 32 hours of emergency medical dispatch training by April 26. Hillsborough and Pinellas already require the training before dispatchers handle calls.

- At Pasco's request, officials from the dispatch offices in Tampa and Hillsborough and Manatee counties reviewed Pasco's 911 operations. Their reports are due soon.

Those reports are the final piece before the issue is closed, assistant county administrator Dan Johnson said.

- A battalion chief, Michael Gordon, will help oversee 911 dispatchers for at least several months to assist O'Brien as changes are made. The county selectively will review medical emergency calls to fix any more faults.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.