The Wichita Eagle
Nov. 28—The Wichita firefighters' union is calling for an independent investigation of "several significant and devastating errors" by Sedgwick County 911 in an apartment fire that killed 22-year-old Paoly Bedeski.
The 911 errors led to a significantly delayed response time to Bedeski's emergency call and prevented firefighters from rescuing her before it was too late, IAFF 135 President Ted Bush said Tuesday at a news conference.
Bedeski, a resident of the Brookhollow Apartments at Central and Rock, called 911 at 3:58 a.m. on Oct. 13 to report that her apartment was on fire and that she needed help. She provided the 911 call-taker with the name of the apartment complex and her apartment number, 306, according to harrowing audio of the call.
"Help me, please," Bedeski pleaded. Then her end of the line went silent.
Wichita firefighters arrived on scene 14 seconds after Bedeski's call ended. They are trained to complete a rescue such as Bedeski's in under 2 minutes and 30 seconds — if they know where to search.
But the firefighters had no idea she was trapped in her apartment because Sedgwick County 911 did not relay that information over the radio or in the computer-aided dispatch system.
They didn't find her until 26 minutes after she called 911. It appears she died in the bathtub while she waited for help to arrive. Her cell phone was lying nearby.
"I've had more phone calls (from firefighters) on this call, on this tragedy, than any other alarm I can ever remember," Bush said. "They're hurt — mentally, physically — sick over what happened at that fire, knowing the whole time they're out there she was up there and we could have got her. I'm telling you, we could have got her. She would be here today had we had that information."
911 call 'tragically short'
Sedgwick County Emergency Communications Director Elora Forshee, in a separate news conference Tuesday afternoon, acknowledged the information was not dispatched to firefighters.
The audio recording from Bedeski shows she was distressed and told operator her apartment number multiple times, repeating it back to him when he asked. But Forshee said the 911 operator could not clearly understand Bedeski in the heat of the moment.
"Unfortunately, the information about Miss Bedeski calling from Apartment No. 306 was not intelligibly heard or understood on the phone from the dispatcher. There was not any understanding or assumption that she was trapped. The call was tragically short. In hindsight, as we know what occurred after the fact, we understand why it was so short. In the midst of it, we did not know what was occurring or what was happening with her."
Forshee said she welcomes any investigations into her department.
"I don't shy away from anything," she said.
Delay in a second alarm
Not relaying information from Bedeski's call wasn't the only mistake that morning, Bush said.
Firefighters asked for a second alarm for more resources to fight the fire at 4:02 a.m. It took more than 17 minutes for the dispatcher to transmit that information, leaving firefighters with less manpower when a "mayday" call went out minutes later about firefighters trapped when stairs collapsed.
Others called to report people trapped in two nearby apartments. Their locations were not relayed to firefighters for several minutes. A dispatcher announced over the radio that a man was trapped in Apartment 302 at 4:07 a.m., but he announced it over the wrong channel, meaning it did not go to firefighters on scene, according to radio traffic of the call provided by the firefighters' union. The transmission was not repeated and there was no acknowledgment that it was heard, as would be common with a critical piece of information.
When a reporting party says a person is trapped in a fire, dispatchers typically enter the call as an apartment fire with persons trapped, along with information about their locations.
Those details allow firefighters to immediately target those areas for life-saving rescues. Without that information, firefighters are trained to attack the fire and begin methodically searching rooms in an "up and out" pattern. Bedeski's apartment was on the third floor of the apartment complex.
The call-taker on Bedeski's call did not enter information into the CAD system — a written, electronic log available to responders and dispatchers — about Bedeski's call until 4:39 a.m. That's 41 minutes after she called and 15 minutes after she had been found unresponsive by firefighters, Bush said.
"Calling party stated unclearly that her apartment is on fire. The line has now gone silent," the 4:39 a.m. CAD entry says, according to Bush.
The massive apartment fire was a chaotic scene. One survivor ran through the fire to escape, suffering serious burns. A couple jumped out of a second-floor window and survived. Firefighters rescued an elderly man who was trapped in a lower level.
A growing disagreement
IAFF Local 135's news conference on Tuesday is the latest escalation in a public disagreement between firefighters and Sedgwick County leaders, who they say have dismissed concerns for years, including in June when the Sedgwick County Emergency Communications Advisory Board held a news conference in response to concerns raised by firefighters about 911's handling of calls.
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter, president of the Sedgwick County 911 advisory board, said at the June news conference that the firefighters' union was spreading inaccuracies in Facebook posts about the new CAD system.
"It was close to 'Citizens should be very afraid because people are going to die because of this CAD system,'" Easter said. "I can tell you from a law enforcement standpoint, that's not true. Our CAD part is working very well. We had some issues in the beginning, but those issues have been corrected."
Bush said he's not interested in playing a blame game.
"This has to get fixed," Bush said. "Who's next? I'm not saying people are going to die; I didn't say that. I said we have a possibility of some bad things happening if we don't get the correct information, and we're not dispatching the correct way."
Bush said Forshee has not been responsive to concerns brought forward by firefighters about incorrect information being dispatched, delayed calls and other issues.
Forshee disputed those claims.
"I think that we have been very responsive to everything concrete and truthful that's been brought forward," Forshee said. "We will continue to respond to concrete, truthful requests for improvements, for modifications, for partnership, and I think that we have a really good relationship with the Wichita Fire Department administration in doing that. . . . I would say that the accusation or allegation that we haven't been responsive is false."
Forshee also acknowledged the mistake in not issuing a timely second alarm.
"Our staff did make us aware of an issue regarding a delay in the full complement of a second alarm being sent," Forshee said.
"That delay and the issues that contributed to it were identified during the event, and as I mentioned, reported to 911 administration — both being reported as identified and remedied," Forshee said. "They were discussed, they were trained, they were addressed on the spot. . . . We put out training for all shifts to ensure that this did not happen again."
Forshee said no one from 911 who handled the call has been disciplined. Additional training was mandated for the entire department after the call "to ensure that this did not happen again," she said.
"I think the natural consequence of knowing what happened has provided enough repercussion for that staff member," Forshee said of the call-taker on Bedeski's call.
Bush also voiced his displeasure that Wichita Fire Chief Tammy Snow has not publicly addressed the fire fatality. Snow did not attend either of Tuesday's press conferences.
"Even though Wichita Fire Chief Snow knows every single detail about this alarm and the details of what went wrong, she has not once addressed it to the public she serves or the firefighters who were terribly affected by this senseless outcome," Bush said. "She should be doing this, not me."
A city spokesperson confirmed Snow is familiar with the details of the call but did not respond directly to questions for Snow.
"The City and the Wichita Fire Department will continue to work with Sedgwick County and the Sedgwick County Fire Chiefs to identify opportunities for operational improvements in emergency communications," Megan Lovely, communications manager for Wichita, said in the statement.
Bush said 911 operators are the "tip of the spear" for public safety.
"I'm telling the citizens and our firefighters, we have a problem," Bush said. "And we want to fix it, no matter what it takes. I think it takes new management. I think it takes fresh eyes. I think it takes national standards, training — intense training, continued training."
He said the firefighters' union stands with dispatchers and that they aren't to blame for the problems in 911.
"We understand the importance of 911 dispatchers and their important job. We want them recognized as first responders just like us, because we can have the best fire department in the world — the best equipped, the best paid, the most staffed, best fire department in the world — and unless it goes right there (at 911), it doesn't matter because it's wrong from the get go. And when the domino falls, bad things happen. It starts from the very beginning."
This story was originally published November 28, 2023, 6:14 PM.
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