In the terrifying moments after Olinda Woodruff realized she had accidentally backed over her 4-year-old daughter in the family's Kingwood driveway, she repeatedly asked a 911 dispatcher to send an ambulance to her home.
She waited with Rebecca, her youngest child, as a firetruck pulled up, followed by police cruisers. But she said "it seemed like forever" until an ambulance finally arrived and called for an emergency medical helicopter. She said a full hour passed before Rebecca arrived at Memorial Hermann Children's Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Olinda Woodruff said in a statement that too many decisions in response to the Oct. 21 accident were made based on the city's new emergency response protocol, and that "too much precious time was lost."
"My wish is that the system is changed in time to save the next child who needs it," she said.
The case highlights what critics call a serious problem with the city's new emergency dispatch system, which they say endangers public safety by dispatching the nearest fire department vehicle instead of automatically sending an ambulance.
The new system is designed to triage ambulance calls by dispatching the closest fire engines, ladder trucks and other Houston Fire Department vehicles to "non-life threatening" EMS calls. If an ambulance is needed, one is then dispatched.
Under the new "All Hazards Response Program" launched Aug. 1, there were no changes to the dispatch of ambulances with advanced life support capabilities to respond to calls where there is a life-threatening incident, said Fire Chief Terry Garrison.
However, Garrison would not give any details of how the call to the Woodruff residence was handled, the response times of the units, or at what point in the call the ambulance was dispatched, citing an internal HFD investigation.
"I actually believe at the end of the day, that this response, and the outcome and the unfortunate situation, has nothing to do with" the new dispatch policy, Garrison said.
Sources close to the investigation who did not want to be identified said late Tuesday that after a dispatcher made the decision to send a firetruck to the Woodruff residence, it took 4 minutes, 47 seconds for the vehicle to arrive. An advanced life support ambulance arrived 4 minutes, 32 seconds later, or about 8 minutes, 30 seconds after the call was dispatched.
But it was not clear how much time passed between when the 911 call was received and the decision was made to send the units.
City Council member Mike Sullivan, whose district includes Kingwood, said the family was told by the crew of the fire engine that an ambulance could not be sent until they arrived on the scene to make an assessment.
"It's not uncommon for a firetruck to show up on EMS calls," said Sullivan, who said he talked to HFD personnel at the scene of the Kingwood accident. "However, they usually show up and an ambulance is en route at the same time. The new policy is: The firetruck is dispatched to the scene, makes an assessment, and then requests an ambulance."
Exception to the Rule
Sullivan said the dispatcher should have been able to make an exception to the new policy.
"I don't know what example could … be more serious than a mother saying, 'Look, I ran over my baby, and I need an ambulance,' " the councilman said. "At that point, the call taker should have had the discretion to dispatch the ambulance at the very least, and at the very worst, turn to the supervisor and say, 'I've got a serious call, and I want to override the system.' "
Rebecca's family is left with lingering questions about why an ambulance was not immediately sent to the home.
"I don't know whether it would have saved my daughter's life," John Woodruff said. "And if it had saved her life, what her quality of life would be. We are not doctors. We are not trying to say that if it had been done differently, everything would have come out just fine.
"All we're saying is that we would have liked to see that everything possible that could have been done, was done," the grieving father said. "And it seems that, under this protocol, that's not what happened."
Woodruff stressed that his family is not trying to blame firefighters, and said the concerns about the emergency response to the accident are focused on helping to fix the system and saving lives.
He added that, based on the facts he and his wife know about the emergency response, they have no intention of filing a lawsuit in connection with the accident.
Mayor Annise Parker asked for residents to pray for the Woodruff family.
"This is a terrible tragedy. We are all touched by it," Parker said. "I want to make sure that when something like this happens, there is an examination of the response to make sure citizens are provided the best customer service possible. That's why an internal investigation is under way to determine if everything was done right."
Open Records Request
Sullivan said he filed an open records request Monday for transcripts of the 911 call and dispatch recording after Garrison turned down a request for dispatch information the department has promptly provided in the past.
"I'd like to see the chief fix the problem. Clearly his new system is broke and it needs to be fixed," said Sullivan.
Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said he was told that the firetruck was on the accident scene in eight minutes.
"If that's accurate, that's faster than the national average to have advanced level care there. But all that will come out in the investigation," Caynon said.