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The entire 911 call from Polk County, Florida will infuriate you

911 talked Loretta Pickard to her death

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After four years of receiving 911 calls back in the 1970s and four decades of listening to 911 calls from hundreds of significant incidents, I can say this one from the 911 center in Polk County, Florida is likely the most frustrating and heartbreaking. The entire recording (above) illustrates the final minutes of 76-year-old Loretta Pickard’s life. You will hear the sounds of Ms. Pickard dying. It’s difficult to listen to, but important that you take the time to hear it along with the real-time, Polk County Fire Rescue radio traffic also on this page (below). After listening to these recordings, don’t just write a nasty comment for social media about how awful things are in Polk County. Instead, ask yourselves an important question: Could any of the many obvious mistakes made here happen where I live?

It’s easy to blame the 911 call taker and the captain on Engine 6 for many of the things that went wrong when Loretta Pickard called for help. We’ve already seen the social media outrage directed at these individuals. I imagine this is impacting them greatly. I look at this a bit differently. My assessment is that Polk County failed Loretta Pickard. I’m also quite certain there are plenty of other places in the U.S. where very similar things could happen.

What I’m hearing on the 911 call that’s so disturbing is something I’ve heard in countless other recordings around the country. It’s 911 call takers who are trained to rely solely on what’s on the computer screen in front of them and not engaging the computer between their ears. This call taker is busy typing and following a script. She does not appear to be listening and applying critical thinking.

It took two minutes before the call taker even realized the disabled woman on the phone was trapped in her home. When the call taker finally figured it out, not once did she say to Loretta Pickard, you need to do anything you can to immediately get out of that house. She never asked how close the nearest door or window was. She never told Ms. Pickard just grab your walker and get out or crawl on your elbows if you can. She never explained to Ms. Pickard that, based on where she lives, it’s going to take at least 15 minutes for firefighters to get to her home, so she must act now. The only bit of smart thinking I heard was getting the number of a neighbor who might be able to help Ms. Pickard get out of the home, but that didn’t come until 14-minutes into the call.

The call taker read Loretta Pickard a script, assured her repeatedly help was on the way and then listened to her die. You think that couldn’t happen in your community? Think again.

Sadly, we’ve trained a whole generation of 911 employees to just follow the script. Many aren’t provided the knowledge and skills to apply the critical thinking that may be needed to help a Loretta Pickard. I’ve heard from countless 911 center workers who’ve been told in one form or another by supervisors, “Don’t think, just follow what’s on the screen.” Again, this isn’t their failure, it’s the failure of any jurisdiction that believes the key to 911 is the money spent for the latest technology, rather than investing in the people who actually answer those calls.

Another key point is that while dispatchers relayed multiple times the report of someone trapped to firefighters from the time of the initial dispatch, it wasn’t until later in the incident they made it clear they were actually on the phone with the person who was trapped.

We’ve been hearing for days all of the failures on the fire suppression side. The one that sticks out is understanding how someone becomes a captain and doesn’t appear understand two-in and two-out. Even the deputy county administrator got that right and was able to articulate to a reporter that with suspected entrapment you don’t have to wait for two-out. But that same county official also believes the only thing that wasn’t done correctly on this response is the captain posted video to Snapchat. We should also point out Polk County is one of many, many places that think two on a fire engine is adequate staffing.

Here are four very important things should happen in Polk County right now:

  • Top officials need to make clear to Loretta Pickard’s family and the public that many of the things we hear on these recordings should not have occurred in the manner that they occurred and that other actions could have been taken to attempt the rescue of Ms. Pickard.
  • Apologize to the Pickard family and to the citizens you serve for this poor and tragic performance by your emergency services.
  • Make the clarifications in your general orders, SOPs, SOGs and training needed to immediately deal with the extremely obvious problems with both 911 and fire suppression.
  • Engage key fire service and 911 experts from outside Polk County to provide a report on everything that went wrong, why these things occurred and to create a blueprint to make lasting improvements to 911, fire and EMS.

Based on how a how a crisis like this usually goes, there’s a very good possibility an attorney for Polk County is telling leadership not to do any of the things I’ve suggested. I hope they ignore that advice. They should focus less on liability or how much they may end up paying Ms. Pickard’s family and, instead, look at the bigger picture. Right now, the people they serve don’t know if they’ll suffer the same fate when calling 911. Each day that they delay acknowledging the obvious mistakes and explaining what they’re going to do right now and in the future to make sure this won’t happen again, will hurt Polk County a lot more than losing or settling a lawsuit.

WFLA-TV broke this story days ago. It’s finally starting to get the attention of the county’s elected officials. Here’s the latest:

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