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Sheriff Blames Dispatcher In 911 Death

MASHPEE — The dispatcher who handled a Sept. 4 emergency call from a Mashpee man whose fiancée was choking failed to follow proper procedures, according to Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings.

In a prepared statement submitted to the Times Tuesday, Cummings wrote that he accepts "full responsibility" for the actions of the dispatcher, who during a 12-minute 911 call did not provide instructions on medical procedures, including the Heimlich maneuver and CPR.

"I am addressing this issue and will do everything possible to ensure that this type of human error does not occur again," Cummings stated. "A thorough review is under way with that precise goal in mind."

Brent McFarland, the man who called 911, believes his fiancée, Kate, died after choking on a marshmallow that night.

Cummings refused to comment on the dispatcher's employment status and did not answer questions from the Times Tuesday.

McFarland said he is furious the dispatcher could still be fielding emergency calls.

He is meeting with District Attorney Michael O'Keefe this afternoon to review the incident.

"I want to know what (O'Keefe's) official take on this is and what his office is officially doing, and its standards of practice of investigating one of your own departments who erred," McFarland said Tuesday.

O'Keefe said Tuesday his office is not investigating the dispatcher's actions at this time. But he added that "if following that meeting (with McFarland) there's something for me to say, I will be happy to say it."

Kate's death certificate, which was signed by the state medical examiner, establishes the cause of death as an accidental choking caused by an airway obstruction.

The death certificate also states she was under the influence of an unidentified substance on the night of her death and that she "choked on food bolus while intoxicated," but the document does not specify whether intoxication played a role in her death.

McFarland told the Times that he and Kate had been drinking hours before he found her choking on his kitchen floor.

O'Keefe said Tuesday that his office would not release any information from Kate's autopsy, including toxicology reports that would reveal what substance she was using that night and the level of it in her blood, until after his meeting with McFarland.

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner also declined to comment on Kate's toxicology results, spokesman Terrel Harris said.

Dispatchers in Barnstable County's emergency dispatch center, located on the Massachusetts Military Reservation, receive several binders containing hundreds of pages of information on how to handle specific medical emergencies, including choking, as part of their training. The Times reviewed copies of the protocols and procedures after submitting a public records request last week to the sheriff's department.

Specific instructions on how to handle a choking emergency are part of a set of flip cards kept at every desk in the county's dispatch center. They instruct dispatchers to ask a series of questions and provide medical instructions based on the caller's answers.

County dispatchers also receive more than 600 hours of training when hired and receive regular updates, according to Cummings' statement.

In the recording of McFarland's 911 tape, the dispatcher asks questions but does not provide instructions and is silent for periods of up to 2½ minutes.

During one of those silent periods, McFarland can be heard calling for help as he attempts CPR on Kate.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm on my own,'" McFarland told the Times last month.

McFarland placed his 911 call at 1:46 a.m. Rescuers arrived in the vicinity of his Mashpee home at 1:56 a.m. Kate was taken to Falmouth Hospital, arriving there at 2:34 a.m. She was pronounced dead 16 minutes later in the emergency room, according to the death certificate.

McFarland also blames the town of Mashpee for not installing a street sign on his private road, which delayed paramedics responding to his Jackbon Road home the night Kate died. Her last name is being withheld from Times reports at the request of her family.

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Sheriff's Statement:

The following is a statement to Cape residents from Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings that he released Tuesday.

"I would like the citizens of Mashpee and the several other towns of Cape Cod that are serviced by the Sheriffs Communication Center to know I accept full responsibility for the manner in which a "911" call was handled this past September.

"Procedures for handling this call, as documented in training protocols and material provided to all our dispatchers, were not followed. I am addressing this issue and will do everything possible to ensure that this type of human error does not occur again. A thorough review is under way with that precise goal in mind.

"The Barnstable County Sheriff's Office has been answering "911" calls and/or providing Fire and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) dispatch for Mashpee for approximately 13 years. During this time, we've handled more than 30,000 emergency calls.

"Although there are currently no standards in the Commonwealth for telecommunicators, our training program consists of more than 600 hours for newly hired employees. This is supplemented by regular monthly, quarterly and annual refresher training for all staff.

"Our training, along with state-of-the art technology and strong, working relationships with Mashpee's police and fire departments, enables us to provide a high level of service to the town's citizens. It's a tremendous responsibility and one that we take with a gravity befitting the task at hand. In many instances, injury and illness have been minimized — and lives even saved — by the men and women of this Communications Division.

"Let me assure the residents of Mashpee, and the other communities we serve, that you are in good hands. This and other divisions within this Sheriff's Office will continue to work hard and strive to exceed your expectations."


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