Medical Training Not Required for 911 Operators - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NC5 Investigates: 911 Emergency

Medical Training Not Required for 911 Operators

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For most of us, if we have to call an ambulance, we want help -- not a bunch of questions.

Still, that's just what you'll get if you call for an ambulance in Nashville.

And get this: officials say they'd rather have 911 operators trained to go through a checklist, than operators with real medical training.

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams had some questions of his own.

Before a Nashville ambulance races into action -- giving life-saving medical assistance to the patient, then rushing off to the hospital -- you've first got to convince a 911 operator that you really need help.

"It was extremely frustrating for me," state employee Bob Allen tells Williams.

Allen experienced a 911 emergency last year when a co-worker in a state office building suddenly collapsed.

"They just seemed to ignore everything I was telling them about his actual condition," Allen recalls.

It's all part of a screening system known as medical priority dispatch.

"It feels like there are a lot of questions, but there really aren't," says 911 director RoxAnn Brown.

Brown says call-takers are supposed to run through a checklist, designed to help them know determine over the phone how much of an emergency it really is.

"We don't diagnose," she says. "All we do is determine whether it's a very serious issue or whether it's a less serious issue."

Listening to the tape of his call, Allen recalls his frustration.

911: "Tell me exactly what happened."
Allen:  "The man's nearly unconscious."
911: "Is he conscious?"
Allen:  "Semi."
911: "Is he completely awake?
Allen: "No."
911: "He's unconscious?
Allen: "No. But he's not completely awake?"

"It just seemed to me like they weren't listening to what I was saying in terms of him being semi-conscious," Allen says.

Brown says the 911 operator was wrong.

"We shouldn't have asked more than once," Brown says. "We had a good answer.  Semi-conscious is not conscious."

Allen says, "That was part of the frustration -- just feeling like I was talking to somebody that had no medical knowledge whatsoever."

"They're making an enormous amount of mistakes over there," says Metro councilman Buck Dozier.

Dozier first implemented the priority dispatch system seven years ago when he was fire chief.

Back then, trained emergency medical technicians -- most with experience in the field -- answered all medical calls at 911.

"They had a feel. They had been there," Dozier says.

"The call takers now do not have to have the emergency medical training at all.  And therefore I think they've dumbed the system down."

Brown says, "If you follow the protocol, it's not a matter of having medical training."

"So you don't need medical training?" Phil Williams asks Brown.

"No, you do not," she answers.

Brown says the old way also cost time -- first answering the phone, then transferring medical calls to a different call taker -- a notion that Dozier argues doesn't look at the big picture.

"That took eight seconds on average, but they sent it to expertise," Dozier says. "And I think that expertise made up for that eight seconds."

Williams asks Brown, "Isn't it common sense that a person with medical training would be able to handle medical calls better?"

"I disagree," she answers, "because I've seen people with medical training try to handle a medical call over the phone and cannot."

But our investigation discovered cases in which 911 operators with no formal medical training still wanted to question trained medical professionals who were on the scene.

For example, there was a call from a pediatrician's office where doctors were performing CPR on a 13-day-old baby and needed an ambulance.

911: "Are they doing CPR right now?"
Caller: "Yes, they are working on the child."
911: "I don't understand what you mean by working on the child."
Caller:  "I know I need an ambulance."

"Does this say something about the call taker's medical knowledge?" Williams asks Brown.

"No, it says that this call taker did not follow the protocol," she replies.

"She doesn't understand what they mean by working on the baby."

"The question is are they breathing, yes or no. Any other answer than yes is a negative."

Dozier says, "It's not our people's fault now.  They're doing the best they can.  They've been told to deal with the computer and ask questions."

So would a little more medical knowledge help Metro's 911 operators get help on the way... with a lot fewer questions.

For city officials, that's one question on which they don't agree.

Five years ago, this study concluded there was no direct evidence that having trained EMTs answering 911 calls would make a difference.

But it recommended that the city conduct a 6-month-long review to see if having call takers with medical training would make a difference.

That was never done.

If you've had a 911 problem -- or know of anything else we should investigate -- e-mail us at investigate@newschannel5.com.

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