Trauma Hawk turns down Martin call for help

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue refused to call Trauma Hawk to a Hobe Sound crash involving fatalities and injured children, despite a plea from a 911 dispatcher.

By Gabriel Margasak staff writer
January 22, 2004

A mother, father and their infant boy were dead.

Martin County Fire Rescue crews were desperately trying to save their four other children, injured but alive, from the wreckage of their family minivan on Interstate 95.

They asked for three helicopters -- Martin County's Lifestar and Melbourne's emergency helicopter responded.

But Martin County rescue officials were shocked -- and worried about future public safety -- after Palm Beach County Fire Rescue refused to call Trauma Hawk to the crash, despite a plea from a 911 dispatcher.

"Any time you refuse assistance to a neighboring county, you endanger citizens of that county," said Rick Raymer, Martin County's 911 dispatch supervisor.

An audiotape released Wednesday of the conversation between a Martin County dispatcher and Palm Beach County dispatchers the afternoon of Jan. 14 tells the story.

"We, um, need to know whether or not you can lend us Trauma Hawk. We have a very bad accident involving two children, um," the dispatcher asks on an audio tape of the call.

She didn't get to finish.

"Wait, before you go any further, we can only get you Trauma Hawk if our units are on scene," the Palm Beach Fire Rescue official responds.

There were no Palm Beach personnel at the Hobe Sound crash.

The helicopter that could have flown the children out was never called. The two remaining children were taken by ambulance to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

Rescue officials could not say whether the helicopter's presence would have aided in the children's care.

They survived.

'Doesn't seem acceptable'

Steve Delai, Palm Beach County's deputy fire rescue chief, said the dispatchers declined to call Trauma Hawk because his department's policy required Palm Beach emergency crews to request the helicopter.

"There was no page made to (Trauma Hawk) with that request because at our dispatch level, that was not the policy that was in place," he said.

Delai said the policy has since changed, and now, dispatchers will page the Palm Beach County Health Care District, a separate entity that controls Trauma Hawk. But the decision to send the helicopter will be up to the district.

It's a change that should be welcome to Martin County officials.

"To arbitrarily refuse because it's in Martin County," Raymer said, "doesn't seem acceptable to me."

'Open to dialogue'

The incident was the latest in a longstanding controversy between the two counties involving the cost of flying trauma patients to the hospital.

Doctors at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach health care providers had long alleged Martin County wasn't paying a fair share of trauma costs.

Martin County established its own LifeStar, rather than pay the Palm Beach County Health Care District, a Palm Beach County taxpayer-supported trauma system.

Martin County Fire Rescue has a mutual aid agreement with its Palm Beach counterpart. However, it does not have such an agreement with the health care district, a separate entity.

After the incident, Steve Wolfberg, Martin County's director of emergency services, called Palm Beach officials for an explanation, and said his department is working with the health district on a mutual aid agreement.

"It appears they are open to dialogue," he said Wednesday. "We're working on putting a proposal together."

Albert Sierra, a Palm Beach Fire Rescue division chief, noted that Palm Beach County has sent Trauma Hawk to Martin County on other occasions and agreed a new arrangement had to be made.

"When there's no formalized agreement, there's delays in response," he said.

- gabriel.margasak@scripps.com

ĎWe have a very bad accidentí

Excerpts from the June 14 emergency call when a Palm Beach County dispatcher refused to call a helicopter to the scene of a fatal accident in Hobe Sound:

Martin County dispatcher: Can I talk to the shift supervisor please?

Palm Beach dispatcher: Hold on one second.

Supervisor: Fire Rescue . . .

Martin County: Hey Nancy, Margaret. We, um, need to know whether or not you can lend us Trauma Hawk. We have a very bad accident involving two children, um.

Supervisor: Wait, before you go any further, we can only get you Trauma Hawk if our units are on scene.

Margaret: Let me see, I donít think itís close enough... (inaudible) OK, well then, we were hoping since it was pediatric they would do it, but if they wonít they wonít.

Supervisor: No.

Martin County: OK.

Supervisor: All right.

Martin County: Thanks.

Supervisor: Uh hum.

Martin County: Bye.