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911 Audio: Idaho Falls ambulance call took nearly 40 minutes

By By Caleb James, Reporter
Published On: Jul 31 2013 12:52:48 AM CDT

Caleb James reports.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -

Imagine calling 911 about a serious emergency. More than 30 minutes later, still no help has arrived.

It's no nightmare. It happened on Christmas Eve 2012 in Idaho Falls.

The video above includes audio from a 911 call placed by an Idaho Falls man who told dispatchers his wife was having a stroke. At the same time, crews were battling an apartment fire at the Bonneville building downtown.

Idaho Falls paramedic and firefighter Mark Pitcher on Tuesday is speaking out about the incident, and about understaffing within emergency services in general.

Pitcher said emergency personnel are stretched so thin, delays happen often, and it is dangerous for the public.

Pitcher said Idaho Falls had no available ambulances at several points already this week. Dispatch confirmed no ambulances were available for calls at around 10 a.m. Monday. Pitcher said the same thing happened at around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

"I don't know that there's been any deaths because of that, but it's only a matter of time," said Pitcher.  

Pitcher said a 911 call reporting a stroke at an Idaho Falls home on Christmas Eve 2012 is an example of the strain on emergency services during large emergencies. Idaho Falls crews were battling a fire at the Bonneville building in downtown Idaho Falls.

The original call came in at 2:51 p.m. on Dec. 26, 2012. 

"I think my wife may have had a stroke," says the man on the call.

Our station knows the identity of the man on the call, but we're not naming the caller for privacy reasons.

Even though all available ambulances were busy at the Bonneville, the dispatcher tells the caller an ambulance is on the way.

"They'll be there shortly," said the dispatcher.

At 2:53 p.m., 2:56 p.m., and 3:01 p.m. dispatchers broadcasted a similar call:

"Any available ambulance; I have a stroke," said the dispatcher.

But 16 minutes after his first call, at 3:07 p.m., the caller calls 9-1-1 again.

"I called 5 or 10 minutes ago, or more," said the called. He tells the dispatcher no one's shown up.  

It's another 5 minutes -- at 3:12 p.m., before we hear this from a station 4 ambulance:

"We can take that call on that stroke."

Still, another minute, and the caller is back on the 9-1-1 recording:

"My emergency is, I think my wife's had a stroke and I called you folks a good 20 minutes or so ago, where in the hell are you?" 

The dispatcher apologizes, and says a crew is on the way. 

Pitcher on Tuesday said there shouldn't have to be any apologies, but from his perspective on the streets, emergency crews are strained; especially when a big emergency like the Bonneville fire is eating up resources.

"We don't have anybody to call, there's no '9-1-2,' there's only 9-1-1," said Pitcher.

There was only 911 for the Christmas Eve caller; his 4th call to 9-1 came at 3:28 p.m. -- a full 37 minutes after his first call.

"I've called you people 4 times with an emergency," said the caller. "I've finally taken her because I can't depend on you."

Pitcher said the delay on that Christmas Eve is one of the worst ones he can remember, but he says 10 to 15 times a month all Idaho Falls ambulances are busy when a call comes in.

Fire chief Dean Ellis gave us a more conservative estimate: 5 to 10 times a month. still, Pitcher says something should change.

Ellis today and asked him about the Christmas Eve stroke call.

He said he wished dispatch would have been up front with the caller about the lack of resources, so he could have taken his wife to the hospital earlier.

A dispatch shift supervisor on Tuesday would not confirm whether dispatch had a policy about disclosing ambulance availability to a caller.

Idaho Falls councilwoman Ida Hardcastle told us by phone on Tuesday she does not believe emergency services are understaffed. 

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