To protect our lives, 911 pledge must be met

Published May 16, 2007

Someone finally made the right call at Pasco's 911 emergency dispatch center. No longer will the people answering the telephone there be ill-prepared to assist people in medical emergencies. That was the case March 24 when Chris Cooper dialed 911 from his Land O'Lakes mobile home. He had emerged from the shower to find his 37-year-old girlfriend Nancy McGhee choking on a piece of steak.

Dispatcher Jennie Montanino was not certified to provide emergency medical instructions and her two supervisors did not respond to her three pleas for help. One, David Cook, later made crass commentary about McGhee's fate after she was pronounced dead at the scene by the ambulance crew. Cook retired amid the county's investigation and lead communications officer Maureen Thomas resigned.

Scapegoating Cook and Thomas as negligent bad apples displaying inexplicable and unprecedented behavior is convenient. But the incident also pinpoints a systemic problem. Unlike other counties, Pasco allows untrained dispatchers to handle emergency calls. A 13-year-old policy granted dispatchers a one-year grace period to work while obtaining emergency medical dispatch certification.

That is now changed. Under revised rules, newly hired dispatchers will receive medical training as part of their orientation. Until they are certified, they will not be allowed to answer calls without a trained dispatcher on the line with them.

Emergency services director Anthony Lopinto called Pasco's system viable, safe and dependable. Tell that to McGhee's family. Montanino, who acted appropriately throughout, wouldn't have had to rely on incompetent or uncaring bosses if she had been certified to deliver medical instructions.

Even Lopinto acknowledges the 1994 policy is outdated and should have been challenged previously. County administrators also talk of rebuilding public trust in the department. The new policy is a good first step, as is the request for an outside audit by neighboring agencies to review other procedures. The county also plans quality control checks and other improvements.

The changes are welcome, as is the pledge from Lopinto that closes his 11-page report. The department is "determined to ensure that anything as unprofessional and callous as the inactions of these two employees never occurs again."

It's up to Lopinto and his chain of command to make sure it doesn't.