Trent Ernst, Editor
More than a year has passed since Russ Mease died, but it was only last month that the BC Coroner’s office released a final report.
On November 16, 2013, Russ Mease was out walking his dog, when he had a heart attack.
His wife began to get worried when he hadn’t returned, and called the police at 6:32 pm. Mease was found, alive but unresponsive at 10:34 pm that evening.
An ambulance was called, but Mease stopped breathing shortly before it arrived, and was pronounced dead in the clinic about 45 minutes later.
If this were the full extent of the story, it would be sad, as Mease was only 51 years old, but hardly remarkable. Hardly worth a year’s worth of investigation by the Coroner’s service.
But there’s a twist to the story, said Mease’s wife, Faye in a story we ran shortly after her husband died. (Mease is currently taking the case to court, and has been advised to not comment further by her lawyer.) The day after her husband died, says Faye, she looked at his cell phone, and noticed that at 3:41 he made a 30 second call to 911. “My husband called 911 at 3:41 and requested an ambulance and nobody did a thing,” she says. “They did nothing. It wasn’t sent to the fire department. It wasn’t sent to the police.”
According to Corporal Dave Tyreman, Media Relations for the North Central RCMP, the 911 system in the north has changed since that incident. At the time, calls were handled by the RCMP, and then directed from there to the appropriate agency, in this case, the BC Ambulance Service.
Since then, he says, 911 services are now being handled by a company called E-Comm 9-1-1 out of Vancouver, which, as of autumn 2014, now handles most of the province’s 911 calls.
In any given year, there are about 1.5 million 911 calls. In 2012, E-Comm released a report saying that about ten percent of the one million calls they received the previous year were accidental dials. “Based on a recent analysis of call statistics,” says an E-Comm report, “E-Comm estimates more than 70,000 of those calls (200 per day) were “pocket dials” (inadvertent calls from cell phones) and 40,000 more were “abandoned” calls (hang-ups). In 2011, 58 percent of E-Comm’s 9-1-1 call volume came from cell phones…the increased use of wireless devices has also resulted in a rise pocket dials. They happen when phones are stored in pockets, purses and backpacks without protective cases or when 9-1-1 is programmed into phones.”
These calls, says an E-Comm representative, are all treated as legitimate. “We pass all calls on to the appropriate service: ambulance, fire or police. If we cannot communicate with the person, the default is to pass it on to the police. We have to treat every call as a legitimate call.”
Which brings us to the BC Ambulance Service. The original call from Mease was transferred to him, but was lost. According to the Coroner’s report, Mease was breathless and unable to make a request for assistance. “The call was transferred to BC Ambulance Service [BCAS]. However, the connection with Mr Mease was lost and despite call back attempts, no contact was made with Mr Mease, and no further action was taken until family called RCMP at 1832 hours to report him missing.”
And this is where the process broke down. According to BCAS, there is a strict policy in cases like this. “If a caller becomes disconnected when on the line with BCAS, our normal procedure is to call back immediately,” says a BCAS spokesperson. “If there is no response when we call back, we will engage the appropriate police agency to investigate further and determine the need for ambulance or other services.”
For Faye, this is the crux of the issue. “It wasn’t until I called the police at six that they started looking for him,” she said at the time. “My husband was gone since two, and that resulted in him not getting medical attention until 10:30. They did nothing with that phone call and he lay there from 3:41 to 10:20, dying. Russ had a massive heart attack, but it was ultimately the hypothermia that killed him.”
According to Kathy Steegstra, Senior Provincial Executive Director of Patient Care, Communications and Planning, BC Emergency Health Services, the parent organization for BC Ambulance, has had a major reorganization over the last year to address issues specifically like that. Steegstra herself has only been in her newly-minted position since November. “We have new leadership,” she says. “We have new patient care and planning which includes dispatch and patient transportation.”
The two major on-the-ground changes that people who call 911 will experience is a new Computer Aided Dispatch system. Steegstra says this system not only includes a new Medical priority dispatch system, which is an internationally recognized system to help assess patient condition, but new technology that will help dispatchers find the location of a cell phone caller.
Secondly, the policy and procedures have been updated as well. “Our dispatchers have had further training on what to do when a call gets dropped, and we’ve added additional details on handovers to other emergency services to our procedure manual.” She says BCAS Dispatch works closely with E-comm around dropped calls.
“We did a Critical Patient Safety Review on this incident,” says Steegstra. “Out of those reviews, we develop recommendations. We take this very seriously and we are accountable for implementing these recommendations. The outcome is the updates that have happened to the CAD system and the changes to the Policy.”