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March 28, 2016

Va. fire department cited for transporting sick kid

By Vanessa Remmers
The Free Lance-Star

FALMOUTH, Va. — The state has cited Stafford’s Fire and Rescue Department for four violations after a February incident in which volunteer firefighters transported an 18-month-old girl having a seizure to the hospital in a fire engine.

The two firefighters at the center of the controversy are still working at the Falmouth Fire Station. The infant is back at home, and the county says it is taking steps to address the violations.

Though the department doesn’t face any restrictions, it must take corrective measures before June 30, the state’s report states.

The county department initially prevented the two firefighters from answering emergency calls for about one week after the incident, but later reinstated them after faced with public outcry.

The state’s investigation, which was opened after the Stafford department alerted it to the incident, concluded that the firefighters’ decision violated a state regulation that prohibits transporting patients in a fire engine.

The state Office of Emergency Medical Services also noted a violation for adequate response staffing, a finding that comes as county officials grapple with the highest public-safety staff turnover in five years.

As many as 31 additional firefighters could be added to the department’s ranks if a recent grant request and budget proposal are approved.

The state also took issue with the certification of the two firefighters, a mainly administrative matter that is more widespread in the department than the fire chief realized.

The two firefighters were both certified as emergency medical responders, but one hadn’t been certified in Virginia, though he had been nationally certified.

Also, neither firefighter had been officially “affiliated” with Stafford’s Fire and Rescue Department or received approval to practice by the department’s medical director.

Fire Chief Mark Lockhart said an incomplete internal review sparked by the incident has so far revealed that roughly 20 department employees have similar issues.

The county announced Friday that it will take steps to resolve those mainly administrative issues.

The violations didn’t come as a surprise to Lockhart, who said he feels the regulations tied to the February incident are reasonable.

He said the question of whether he felt the firefighters made the right decision was a little unfair, adding that hindsight is always 20/20 and that he wasn’t there at the scene.

He added that he expects those responding to emergency calls to make the right decision for the patient while following regulations. Otherwise, he said, a fire chief ends up sitting in a conference room with state officials.

According to the two volunteer firefighters, the state’s findings and the department’s initial decision to take them off duty expose deeper problems within Lockhart’s department, including favoritism for career Fire and EMS employees over volunteers.

“While we are very glad that Capt. Kelley and Sgt. Bloom were reinstated, this report shows that there are many more problems in Stafford Fire and EMS Department than two volunteers who made the right decision to save a young girl’s life,” said Jason Pelt, the attorney representing the two firefighters. “Volunteers play a vital role in our community’s safety and the fact that the department’s first reaction was to suspend two volunteers and not any career shows a lack of respect, which I hope will be corrected soon.”

Capt. James Kelley and Sgt. Virgil Bloom, responding to an emergency call, were the first to arrive at the McDonald’s restaurant near the Ferry Farms neighborhood on Feb. 27.

Kelley was the officer in charge, and said the 18-month-old was having a seizure and was blue from her chest to her head.

On his way to the McDonald’s, a medic unit called in over the radio to say they were the closest unit. But Kelley had heard the unit’s prior call was in North Stafford on White Pine Circle.

Kelley didn’t receive an answer from the medic unit after he asked for its location. After his second request, the medic unit only answered “southbound on Route 1.” Kelley figured it would be 10 or 15 minutes before a medic unit would arrive, so he made the decision to put the infant in the fire engine and drive across the Chatham Bridge to Mary Washington Hospital.

According to the county’s review, the medic unit was 4.6 miles away once Kelley’s engine started transporting the girl. Another ambulance was 1.7 miles away.

Once the child was in the fire engine, the ambulance requested to meet up with Kelley at the Falmouth Fire Station. But because the engine was already over the bridge on the way to the hospital, Kelley denied the request.

“The child was placed on a seat in the rear cab of the fire engine in a turnout coat with a seatbelt and held by the crew members,” according to a previous statement by Lockhart.

Kelley said the baby, who was given oxygen in the fire engine, was limp and had paralysis on the entire left side of her body when she was admitted to the trauma room at the hospital.

The career medic who didn’t give his unit’s specific location on U.S. 1 is still with the department, Lockhart said. The communication issue has been addressed, he said, and he didn’t expect it to happen again.

Copyright 2016 The Free Lance-Star

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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