The wait for an ambulance in East Atlanta can be excruciating
The people who were there tried calling for an ambulance. But they were bounced from agency to agency, put on hold, or they couldn't get through — at least for a while.
As the minutes trickled by, the man who needed help began to weaken, to stop talking, to lose blood, according to employees of the restaurant where he collapsed. Christian Henderson and his fiancee had only just left East Atlanta's Iris bistro, heading for their car a block away, when Henderson was shot once in the abdomen. Despite an injury that would kill him in 12 days, he managed to stumble from the street back to the restaurant's bar.
Iris employees say a customer in the parking lot called 911 first, from a cell phone. They say three calls were then placed from the restaurant, on cell phones and a landline.
DeKalb County officials refused to hand over any 911 recordings associated with the murder of the 32-year-old Henderson. One of the calls, however, first went to the Atlanta Police Department, and police provided CL with a copy of the tape. The recording captures the call snaking from agency to agency — a frustrating five minutes during which the caller is clearly perturbed.
A police report on Henderson's murder estimates he was shot sometime after 10:20 p.m. The 911 tape starts at 10:32. A DeKalb ambulance was dispatched at 10:37, according to a member of Atlanta City Council. It arrived at 10:50.
The manner in which the call was handled points to a communication breakdown peculiar to pockets like East Atlanta, a portion of the city that rests in DeKalb rather than Fulton county. That makes it one of the few areas of Atlanta served by DeKalb EMS.
Government officials serving East Atlanta are calling for an investigation into whether Atlanta neighborhoods in Fulton County may receive prompter EMS attention than Atlanta neighborhoods in DeKalb. They say the 18 minutes it took to get to Henderson was too long.
First 48 seconds:
Caller: Hello. Um, somebody's been stabbed [sic] in our parking lot. And he's still outside.
Atlanta dispatcher: OK, what's the address, ma'am?
C: We're at, um, Iris cafe. 1413 Glenwood Avenue [sic].
AD: OK, how old is the person that was stabbed?
C: Probably mid-20s, mid-30s.
AD: OK. Is he conscious, alert and breathing?
C: He is breathing. He just fell on the floor. And he's ... He's not breathing very well right now.
AD: OK, let me transfer you to the ambulance. OK?
C: Thank you.
AD: Hold just a moment.
In 1998, the head of the DeKalb County Public Safety Department requested 40 additional medics and four more ambulances — all denied by the county CEO. John Styron, then-chief of DeKalb EMS, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time: "We've started running out of ambulances with unacceptable regularity. The obvious conclusion is that people will die. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."
Fulton dispatcher: Fulton County 911. What's the emergency?
Caller:The person was just stabbed [sic] in the parking lot of this restaurant. 1314 Glenwood Avenue.
FD: OK, hold on. Let me transfer you to DeKalb. One moment.
Whenever Atlanta dispatchers receive a call for an ambulance, they usually forward the call to Fulton County EMS, says Dennis Lockridge, administrator for the state agency that oversees eight metro counties' ambulance services. The Fulton dispatcher then determines whether the call should be forwarded to DeKalb.
"There are some calls down there [to Fulton EMS] that have taken a long time to dispatch out [to DeKalb]," Lockridge says. "From what I heard, they were taking like four minutes to dispatch out. Four minutes is actually an awful long time. Somewhere around two minutes is what you're hoping to achieve."
Caller (still on hold): What the fuck is wrong with 911? [To someone at Iris:] Somebody was just stabbed and they're passing out in the bar right now. And they transferred me three times.
Someone at Iris: My God.
Fulton dispatcher: Ma'am, we're not transferring you. We're trying to get you an ambulance.
When Chief David Foster took over DeKalb's EMS and fire departments three months ago, he began training all of his firefighters to be medics and vice versa. That way, a fire truck sometimes can respond in lieu of an ambulance, saving the ambulance for a more serious call. "We can put more ambulances on the street by using our people a little more effectively."
He says the county hasn't run out of ambulances since last October. He also says the closest ambulance station to East Atlanta is seven miles away, which is about a 13-minute drive — an acceptable response time, he claims. But only if the call arrives within seconds.
DeKalb dispatch center: This is DeKalb County Police 911. Please do not hang up. Your call will be handled by the next available operator.
Caller (to herself): What is this? The line begins ringing. At this point — 10:34 p.m. — the tape cuts off. It picks back up two minutes later, with the line still ringing.
Nic Bour says that when he called 911 from his cell phone inside Iris, the line rang and rang — and that he too got a pre-recorded message. "It was just crazy," he recalls. "Being put on hold for 911 is not acceptable."
He remembers taking off his chef's jacket and covering Henderson with it, to keep him warm.
When it comes to treating a shooting victim, it is important to stabilize the victim before the damage worsens, says Dr. John Harvey, chairman of the state District III EMS Council. "Hopefully, anywhere you are," Harvey says, "you'll be within eight to 10 minutes of an ambulance." "
DeKalb dispatcher: DeKalb emergency 911, what is the exact location?
Caller: I'm sorry? I need an ambulance. I'm at 1314 Glenwood Avenue. Somebody's been shot.
DD: OK, ma'am. What does Glenwood Avenue run off of?
C: Uh, Moreland — or I-20.
DD: Is this a house or an apartment?
C: It's a restaurant. Iris restaurant ''Police sirens sound in the background.
DD: Who was shot? A customer?
DD: Hold on, ma'am. Don't hang up. I'm going to transfer you.
"Years ago, that part of the city of Atlanta, in DeKalb, had some problems," recalls Lockridge of the District III EMS Council. "But we thought we'd taken care of that."
He says Grady Memorial Hospital ambulances used to get dispatched to East Atlanta on behalf of Fulton County — and that DeKalb ambulances would get dispatched at the same time. "You don't want two ambulances responding," says Lockridge.
By law, DeKalb EMS is the agency with jurisdiction over East Atlanta, so DeKalb took over. DeKalb's closest station to East Atlanta is seven miles away. Grady's is three.
East Atlanta's elected county representative, DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson, and its city rep, Atlanta Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, are working together to investigate whether Henderson's ambulance could have arrived any faster — and, if so, what can be done to improve EMS responses in the future.
"I want to make sure that the constituents in the Atlanta-DeKalb area that I serve aren't being slighted," Archibong says.
DeKalb dispatcher: This is DeKalb ...
Caller: Hello? ... The police are here.
DD: OK, so you're waiting on EMS? OK, thanks.