What NOT to Do When Calling 9-1-1 (or Witnessing a Dying Person’s Last Breaths)


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Nearly everything a 9-1-1 caller should not do is demonstrated in a recent call to the Fire Department in Bakersfield, California. An elderly woman living at a senior living center collapses in the dining room, is barely breathing, and her condition soon deteriorates into cardiac arrest. Beyond the unconscionable refusal by the staff to perform CPR on this woman, several other aspects of the call made it exceedingly challenging for the 9-1-1 call taker to handle (I should note the incredible professionalism required of this 9-1-1 telecommunicator to remain composed, as displayed by her continued attempts to get someone on scene to begin resuscitative measures).

Here’s a snapshot of all of the various issues with the call:

  1. The caller does not know the address of where she is calling from
  2. The caller does not know the phone number she is calling from
  3. The caller provides information to the 9-1-1 call taker as soon as the call is answered, rather than answering her questions as they are asked
  4. The caller is not next to the patient
  5. The phone is handed off at least two times to other individuals, who are also not immediately next to the patient
  6. Finally, the refusal of any of the callers to provide chest compressions to the patient, who later died

If you have 7 minutes or so, listen to this 9-1-1 call. You will be amazed at the lack of compassion and common sense displayed by everyone who was witness to this woman’s death.

As a former EMS administrator and still-certified paramedic, it is frustrating for me to just listen to this call. I sincerely hope that the authorities in Bakersfield are filing complaints with the licensing boards of anyone on that scene who holds a medical license or certification and refused to perform CPR. The facility should also be investigated for its apparent policy of not intervening, but simply dialing 9-1-1, when a resident experiences a medical issue.

I’ve posted these simple tips to follow when calling 9-1-1, but they are worth sharing again:

  • Call from a landline whenever possible, it is easier for your location to be determined
  • Have an address or precise location to provide the telecommunicator
  • Listen carefully to the telecommunicator’s questions and provide information as it is requested
  • Attempt to speak as clearly and as calmly as possible
  • Follow the instructions that the telecommunicator provides to you, unless you feel they will place you in danger
  • Call 9-1-1 directly…only post to social media as a last resort
  • If in doubt as to whether someone is in distress or something is suspicious, call 9-1-1
  • Make sure your children know your home address and teach them how and when to use 9-1-1
  • Create a safety profile in a system such as Smart911.com to provide relevant information about you and your family to emergency responders
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2 thoughts on “What NOT to Do When Calling 9-1-1 (or Witnessing a Dying Person’s Last Breaths)

  1. This was a DNR call per the family’s directives on file at the facility. Per the local jurisdiction’s policy the call should have ended with determination. Reporting dead bodies is a problem for systems that are set up only to respond to EMS requests and murders.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Irvin. Could you provide a link to a story that mentions the DNR? I am unable to find any, and have found this one dated March 8th indicating that the independent living center is now claiming that the nurse “misinterpreted company policy” and is on voluntary leave: http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/state&id=9020165 or this one: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2013/03/refusing-cpr-to-dying-woman-not-a-crime-police-conclude.html

      If there had been a DNR, it would be case closed, but I’m not certain that was indeed the case.

      As a paramedic and former EMS administrator, I couldn’t agree more with you regarding the confusion caused by people calling 9-1-1 for someone with a DNR or advance directives in cardiac arrest or imminent arrest. EMS needs to honor the DNR, but there are times where the family in the moment wants resuscitative measures initiated and even go so far as to destroy the DNR paperwork. A tricky situation, to say the least.

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