PHILADELPHIA -- A Northeast Philadelphia woman died early Tuesday morning after waiting more than an hour for a city ambulance to respond to her 911 call for help.
In one of the most troubling episodes in memory for the city's beleaguered emergency medical system, the ambulance that finally arrived broke down and was unable to take Deborah Payne, 55, to the hospital.
Another arrived an hour and 40 minutes after the original call, but ended up taking Payne to the morgue, not the hospital.
She was declared dead in the stalled ambulance at the Park Terrace Apartments, on Rowland Avenue near Rhawn Street, where she lived.
"I don't think it could have been a worse situation," said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, whose department runs the EMS system. "This hurts. It's painful for everyone involved."
Just last week, a review by City Controller Alan Butkovitz found the emergency medical system lacking in resources and too slow in getting to citizens in need.
"Something like this really brings that report into focus," Ayers said. "We need more resources. We have to examine these things and do what we can to help folks."
Ayers said Payne called 911 to report she was having trouble breathing. Her call came at the most difficult time of the year for the EMS system: between midnight and 4 a.m. as New Year's Eve turns into New Year's Day.
According to Ayers, here's what happened:
Payne called for help at 2:39 a.m., and within four minutes a fire unit, Engine Company 36, arrived to begin first aid. Fire trucks typically are dispatched as "first responders" to administer basic medical care, but can't transport a patient to the hospital.
The emergency medical technicians from the fire truck gave Payne oxygen while waiting for an ambulance unit. A second fire truck, Ladder Company 20, arrived in a few minutes with more oxygen.
It wasn't until 3:42 a.m. -- more than an hour after Payne called 911 -- that an ambulance, Medic Unit 43-B, based at 4th and Snyder in South Philadelphia, arrived. Medic 43-B is a "basic-life-support" ambulance that isn't equipped to perform all kinds of emergency care, but can take a patient to the hospital.
Payne was loaded into Medic 43-B, which then failed to start.
By the time a backup unit arrived at 4:20 a.m., Payne was dead in the ambulance that couldn't move.
The medical examiner's office listed the cause of her death as morbid obesity.
Ayers said for this New Year's Eve he added extra communications pesonnel and five ambulances to the 28 that would normally be on duty in the wee hours, but it was clear that the system was stretched beyond its limit.
"We get so many calls then, a lot of them for people who've fallen down or passed out drunk," Ayers said. "That makes it harder for us to get to more serious situations like this one."
Firefighters' union president Brian McBride said that Payne's death shows the tragic consequences of failing to fund the city's emergency medical system."We have to adequately budget for public safety," McBride said. "We've been fighting this battle for years. It's a public-safety emergency."