'I'm on fire!' Elderly Woman Told KS Dispatcher

Jan. 22, 2024
The victim, who died Jan. 21, repeatedly told the Sedgwick County 9-1-1 dispatcher she and her house were on fire.

Jan. 22—Update: The fire victim died in the hospital on Sunday, Jan. 21.

Between screams, the woman told the Sedgwick County 911 call-taker at least three times that she was on fire.

In her panic, the 91-year-old accidentally hung up after dialing 911 on the morning of Jan. 7. When the county called back, she tried to explain what was happening.

"My house is on fire," she said in a quavering voice on call audio obtained by The Eagle. "4560 South Hydraulic. Help me!"

But the call-taker — who had been hired six weeks earlier — couldn't make out her words.

Firefighters and paramedics en route to the south Wichita complex were given no indication over the radio of a possible fire, dispatch archives reviewed by The Eagle show. Instead, the call was coded as an unknown medical emergency for EMS.

"Even listening to it after the fact, it's hard to hear it unless you know what you're listening to," Emergency Communications Director Elora Forshee told county commissioners at a Jan. 16 staff meeting where the house fire was discussed at length.

"They're asking, 'Is something on fire? Is your house on fire? Ma'am, tell us what's going on,' and she obviously is not able to focus in on really articulating that, understandably."

Listen to the 911 call:

The call was flagged by the Wichita Fire Department as potentially problematic through a new reporting mechanism designed to improve communication after the Brookhollow Apartment fire last October where 22-year-old Paoly Bedeski died.

The Jan. 7 call lasted more than 10 minutes, including several stretches of silence where the woman did not respond to questions. At times, she can be heard groaning and screaming. When she does respond, her voice is strained.

Twice, when the call-taker asked what was on fire, the woman stated "lot 310" — her trailer number at the Riverside Mobile Home Park. Another time, when asked what was on fire, she responded "I'm on fire!" She also stated at least twice that she could not move and that she was disabled.

The woman called 911 at 7:11 a.m. and two emergency vehicles — a WFD squad truck and a Sedgwick County ambulance — were dispatched at 7:14 after 911 confirmed her address.

Within seconds of arriving on the scene at 7:22 a.m., the two-man fire crew reported heavy smoke and radioed in a house fire alarm. They pulled the woman from her burning trailer after forcing open the door.

She was taken by ambulance to St. Francis hospital, where she died two weeks later.

"Knowing at the end that it was a structure fire, the things she is saying [on the 911 call] start to make sense," Forshee told commissioners.

"She says 'I'm on fire,' and I was talking to the call-taker and she says, 'We thought she was either having like a temperature' or — what is it? Like a skin issue."

Forshee, who has served as director since 2015, told The Eagle in an email response that the employee who fielded the woman's 911 call was hired on Nov. 27.

"The employee graduated from academy training and is in the on-the-job portion of training, closely supervised by a trainer who was monitoring the call the entire time and providing input on the evaluation and decision-making process," Forshee wrote.

The trainer who monitored the call started her job with Emergency Communications in May 2021.

Asked by Commissioner Jim Howell if the call should have been handled any differently, Forshee said she felt comfortable with how the call-taker and trainer performed.

"We want to hear everything. Goodness, we want to hear and understand everything that's said on the phone and it's just not realistic to do so," she said.

"On the fire [dispatch] side, I wish we would have been a little more communicative to the fire units responding about what we were hearing on the phone.

"What I would do with 20 years of experience is to provide the information to the squad responding. 'This is what we're hearing. Do you want to continue to check it out or do you want me to go ahead and start the structure fire response?'"

Delayed response

The delayed house fire alarm meant it took an extra roughly three minutes for a full complement of fire engines to arrive and begin suppressing the blaze, Wichita fire union President Ted Bush said in an interview.

"Three extra minutes is a lifetime when you're fighting for your life, when you're fighting for your last breath," Bush said. "If that was a family in there, we might have lost three out of four because we didn't have enough units on scene to a house fire when someone said 'I'm on fire.'"

He said firefighters "would much rather be there and not needed than not be there and be needed."

"When a person says 'I'm on fire,' I'm sending the fire department for a house fire," Bush said. "Now, if it turns out they burnt themselves cooking, everybody goes home."

Forshee told commissioners she has a different dispatching philosophy. Immediately sending a full complement of engines when dispatchers don't know for certain there's a fire may not be the correct decision, she said.

"There's a tricky balance in there of making sure, if you over-send, you run into issues of resource depletion," Forshee said. "And then you also run into issues with, if I've got a fire truck running hot — EMS, police, whatever — running red light and siren and they run into somebody and cause an accident with injuries or worse . . . Did we have the reason logically to have sent that response?"

She said ideally, dispatchers should lean on the expertise of units in the field, communicating openly and letting them use their discretion to guide the response.

"The relationship between agencies is very critical where dispatchers should feel comfortable to ask these questions and not feel that they're going to be berated in doing so, and that's what I would have preferred to have happened," Forshee said.

Heightened scrutiny

A review of the Riverside Mobile Home Park fire came before commissioners Jan. 16 after the call was flagged for possible dispatch errors by the Wichita Fire Department.

The fire department now files weekly reports with Forshee's department on potentially problematic calls, a new review mechanism instituted in the aftermath of the Brookhollow Apartment fire.

The county and city are in the process of identifying a third-party group to conduct an audit of the emergency response to the fatal fire.

At a news conference in November, the fire union outlined "devastating errors" in 911's handling of that call, including dispatchers' failure to communicate potentially lifesaving information about Paoly Bedeski's location to firefighters on the scene. Bedeski, the first caller to alert 911 to the fire, died trapped in her bathroom.

In January, the fire union distributed an open letter signed by 15 former Sedgwick County 911 employees alleging inadequate training and a toxic work culture under Forshee and calling on county leadership to remove her.

Commissioners have remained complimentary of Forshee's leadership.

"You guys do just amazing work. We appreciate you so much. You, your staff, everybody," Commissioner Sarah Lopez told Forshee. "I don't know what this community would do without the work that you provide to us. I just hope that you know we see you, we value you, and all the noise — we have a good team over there. We'll get through."

Forshee told Lopez her team is "strong" and "resilient" but said they're also "worn down."

"They're seeing what's happening to me in the press, and it is making them gunshy," she said.

"They have also experienced, if not outright rudeness [from firefighters] then definitely tones and belittling, just feeling very belittled in that spot when they don't make what's deemed as the right decision."

Bush said he has a great deal of respect for dispatchers and the work they do. But he believes more extensive training is needed to build 911 employees' confidence and improve their performance in high-stress situations.

"We are in a critical, time-sensitive job," he said. "Seconds count when we're making decisions and we need this information. We need professionals giving this information so we can make decisions that save people's lives."

This story was originally published January 20, 2024, 5:55 AM.


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