The death of a man visiting family in Oak Park 10 days ago is being reviewed by Oak Park and River Forest officials after an ambulance was dispatched to the wrong address causing a delay in treatment of some six minutes.
Due to miscommunication between the brother of the dying man and a dispatcher from the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center an Oak Park ambulance was sent to 1117 S. Harvey Ave. and not to 717 S. Harvey Ave.
The incident has raised a range of reactions with an elected official in River Forest calling this week for the hiring of a consultant to review all operations of the dispatch center and an Oak Park official defending the center as efficient.
Gary Towery, 44, of Hastings, Nebraska, apparently suffered an epileptic seizure while visiting his brother. He died early Nov. 18. After the brother found Towery "unresponsive but breathing," according to a police report, he dialed 911 for an ambulance shortly after 2:35 a.m.
Fire and police were dispatched to 1117 S. Harvey, where they arrived at 2:41 a.m.
The dispatcher then stayed on the phone with the caller, performing what's termed "Emergency Medical Dispatch Protocol," but hung up when told emergency personnel had arrived. When police knocked on the door, however, they were told no one there one had requested an ambulance.
As is standard procedure in such cases, the fire department dispatched other units to the 1100 block of North Harvey and called WSCDC to ask them to confirm the address.
"It doesn't happen often, but if we have no (indication of north or south) we send another unit to the other address," said Oak Park Fire Chief William Bell.
Firefighters also contacted WSCDC, which then called the phone number that had requested service.
"The caller said, 'I'm at 717 S. Harvey,'" said Bell. Fire and police personnel arrived at that address at 2:47 a.m. and 40 seconds. Towery was transported to West Suburban Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:32 a.m.
Recording details mix-up
"Listening to the (dispatch) tape, what went wrong is the dispatcher misunderstood what the caller stated," said Bell, who reviewed the tape Monday.
"The dispatcher asked, 'what is the nature of the call and where are you calling from,'" Bell said. "I'm calling from 717 S. Harvey," Bell said the caller replied.
Bell said the dispatcher, following protocol, repeated back what he thought he heard, saying "1117 S. Harvey," and got no reply from the caller.
"The dispatcher repeated what he thought he heard. The caller did not correct him in any way," said Bell.
Bell said the misunderstanding was exacerbated by the fact that the 911 call was made on a cell phone. Calls made from land lines automatically record the address of the registered phone on the WSCDC computer screen. Cell phone calls to WSCDC currently do not register addresses.
Russ Nummer, a River Forest village trustee and the village's former fire chief, said that while protocol appeared to have been followed in the Nov. 18 incident, that protocol should perhaps be amended.
"It's not as much an issue of training as of policy, of procedure," he said. "If you're the telecommunicator, and you're not sure, don't guess. It's too important."
Dispatchers, Nummer said, should be required to make certain their assumptions are confirmed.
"If the dispatcher was unsure, I'd think the onus would be on the dispatcher to make an extra effort."
Steve Hoke, chairman of the River Forest Police Committee has scheduled a meeting this Thursday to consider recommending the hiring of an outside dispatch expert to assess WSCDC's operations. Oak Park officials have said that their own assessment of the center's operations the past 35 months indicates a high level of efficiency, but that they remain concerned about mistakes of any kind in dispatching emergency services.
One Oak Park firefighter with whom Wednesday Journal spoke last week but who asked to remain anonymous, said that errors such as the one in the Nov. 18 incident occur frequently.
"We've gone to wrong addresses on numerous occasions," said the Oak Park firefighter. He gave an example of an instance last week of a call of a person locked out of a car in the 400 block of South Lombard that was actually the 400 block of North Lombard. "What comes across on a screen is only as good as what they type in," he said.
He said he and his colleagues have given up on filing formal complaints, and alleged that management is not supportive of such complaints.
"Errors are so common, and our guys are jaded," the firefighter said. "They won't put anything down in writing because it just gets quashed."
River Forest's Hoke said he believed any improved protocol should take account of known problem areas.
"That's why you need to have a protocol for cell phone calls," he said.
Hoke has been delving into alleged problems with WSCDC police and fire dispatching for the past several months in his role as chairman of the village board's police committee.
"I am going to schedule a Police Committee meeting at 7 p.m. for Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007," said Hoke "The agenda will include a recommendation to the village board on hiring a potential expert to evaluate the dispatch center." The expert being considered is a former top official at the Chicago 911 Center who was recently hired by the State of Illinois. He said he intends to make a recommendation at the Dec. 10 village board meeting.
River Forest Trustee Susan Conti acknowledged the incident was significant, but said the current circumstances should not be dealt with in the media.
"Obviously it's an issue," she said of the Towery case. "But trying it in the press is not appropriate." Asked if she thought the subject was appropriate for discussion by the Police Committee, Conti said it might be, but that she favored a broader discussion among the full village board.
"I'd like to be involved. I think the whole (River Forest) board should be involved. I think Oak Park should be involved," she said.
River Forest Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez was on vacation Monday and unavailable for comment.
Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin took issue with the Oak Park firefighter's contentions, saying he and other public safety administrators take their responsibilities very seriously, and are open to hearing detailed observations and criticisms.
"The (WSCDC) board is anxious to review any and all specifics, whatever issues are raised," Barwin said. "We'd welcome any firefighter who wants to share any perspective. Those conversations can be arranged."
Barwin criticized those who do not bring their concerns forward.
"If people begin to throw accusations out, and do it without first reporting them internally, then I think they're being derelict in their duty," he said. "If individuals have observations, backed up with specifics, we're willing to embrace those comments."
He added, "If anybody has anything to say about anything, there's no environment here where there'd be any retaliation."
Barwin noted that the WSCDC board of directors, comprised of himself and the village administrators from River Forest and Elmwood Park, routinely discuss such problems.
"I'm sure we'll discuss (the Nov. 18 incident) at the WSCDC board," he said. "The goal is to minimize, if not eliminate, all mistakes or interpretations."
Barwin said the WSCDC recently completed a comprehensive assessment of the center's operations the past 35 months that indicates those mistakes are minimal.
"I don't think we have anything to hide here," said Barwin, who said that statistics indicate that WSCDC has been operating at a high degree of efficiency.
"Between 2005 and November 2007, there were a total of 120 complaints (regarding) 236,233 dispatches," he said. "And 436,306 calls." With nearly 700,000 calls and dispatches made by WSCDC staff, Barwin noted, 120 complaints represents a ratio of .00017.
Of the 120 complaints, the report stated, 61 led to disciplinary action, 31 in the form of oral or written reprimands, and 24 involving suspensions of one to 10 days. Six telecommunicators were fired, including three so far this year.
"When filed, it appears there have been corrective measures taken when (complaints) were found to be valid."
Hoke suggested that there's an element of comparing apples to oranges in the ongoing debate over complaints. He referred to comments Gutierrez made to the media recently in which he said that River Forest has had 200 internal complaints since the inception of WSCDC.
"That doesn't mean there were just 200 errors," Hoke said. "And that's just River Forest alone."
Barwin also said he'd welcome input from an outside expert such as the one Hoke is proposing.
"We'd welcome any objective outside party evaluating what we do and how we do it," he said.
Hoke said he's ready to delve into WSCDC operations.
"I remain concerned," he said. "(The Towery case) is another incident that proves we have serious issues that need to be explored immediately. I hope everyone with a stake in this has the same desire to get to the bottom of it."