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Paramedic in pepper spray case had flunked key exam for job

By Shannon O'Boye
Staff Writer
Posted June 19 2003

One of the Fort Lauderdale paramedics who examined a man shortly before he collapsed and died after being pepper sprayed by police had failed a hands-on paramedic exam twice when he applied for the job, records show. But the city hired him anyway.

Keith Webster, 33, took the "Mega Code" exam, which tests a paramedic's ability to assess and treat a patient with heart and lung problems, at least twice in 2001. In June he score 74.9 percent and in August he scored 79.25 percent. Both scores were low enough that the department's medical examiner, Dr. Wayne Lee, had to review Webster's work, according to test results provided by the city.

The fire-rescue department sent Webster a letter in September 2001 offering him a job as a firefighter/paramedic contingent upon several things, including passing the Mega Code exam.

He never passed it, but Lee decided he could be hired.

Webster and Michael Bucher, the other firefighter/paramedic on duty the night Raymond Sterling Jr. died outside the city jail, are on paid leave while the city looks into what happened.

Sterling, 21, ran from the police after a traffic stop early on April 19. He then resisted arrest, got pepper sprayed, and was evaluated by paramedics because he complained of being tired and short of breath. He collapsed and died minutes after the medics left. The rescue workers told their dispatcher it was a "police matter [with] no medical need," according to fire-rescue dispatch tapes.

Police officers called Webster and Bucher back to the jail after Sterling collapsed, but the paramedics did not try to revive him. Countywide protocols say: "Only in cases of obvious prolonged death should CPR not be started or discontinued on infants, children, young adults or cases in which an unexpected death has occurred."

Fire Chief Otis Latin explained Wednesday why Webster was hired.

"He was already a paramedic in Sunrise, working under Dr. Lee's license," Latin said. "Dr. Lee reviewed his Mega Code results and approved him for hire. ... The key here is this person was an active paramedic in the Sunrise Fire Department."

Fort Lauderdale dropped the Mega Code exam as a hiring prerequisite in September 2001, Latin said. It remains a state requirement.

Webster, who joined Sunrise Fire-Rescue in April 2001 after spending the previous two years as a federal firefighter at the Homestead Air Force Base and the previous six months as a part-time paramedic, must have passed the Mega Code exam at some point to get licensed.

But C.W. Blosser, president of the Florida State Firefighters Association and a captain with the Arcadia Fire Department, said he would not hire someone who could not pass the test again.

"If you can't function in a room when it's pretend, I'm highly doubtful of your skills in the field," Blosser said.

"It tests your ability to think, react, and treat more than one heart rhythm," Blosser said. "It covers intubation, medicine, drug therapy, oxygen therapy, IV access, the total modality of treatment. ... Mega Code is a good way to test paramedic skills."

Richard Seabrook, one of Webster's lieutenants in Fort Lauderdale, bluntly questioned Webster's skills during his six-month review in April 2002.

"Webster's inability to recognize critical elements while on medical calls of substance jeopardizes patient care due to his overall lack of knowledge and inexperience," Seabrook wrote. "By [firefighter] Webster's own admission, he would not feel comfortable being the only medic on a crew that was working on his father or being on his own as a paramedic."

The fire chief said Wednesday that Webster successfully completed his probationary period before being allowed to work as a full-fledged paramedic.

When reached by phone, both Webster and Lee said they could not talk about the case because several investigations into Sterling's death are under way.

Sterling died because his red blood cells sickled, or became misshapen, after physical exertion and prevented oxygen flow, said Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Michael Bell. Breathing problems caused by the pepper spray contributed to his death, the medical examiner's report said.

The report showed the police officers and the medics disagree about what happened in the minutes before Sterling's death. Still, the city has decided to conduct a joint internal investigation.

Chuck Morton, the head of the State Attorney's Office homicide unit, said Wednesday he hopes to see that report in the next couple of weeks before presenting the facts to a grand jury.

"We always present these matters to a grand jury for review to determine if sufficient evidence or probable cause exists to believe someone should be criminally charged," he said.

"The grand jury is citizens in the community, and they have a stake in what happens in the community," he said. "They can be considered independent of our office and law enforcement."

All of the police officers involved in the case are still on the job, and department spokesman Detective Mike Reed has said they did nothing wrong.

Toni Pompa, Sterling's aunt, says she thinks Webster and possibly the police officers should be locked up for their role in Sterling's death.

"I can't help it but feel [Webster] should go to jail, because you know your job is saving lives," she said. "You know you're playing with people's lives. His job was to transport, and he did not transport. It's beyond negligence."

Shannon O'Boye can be reached at soboye@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4597.
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