They were just two minutes away, but it took paramedics 27 minutes during the Berkeley protests in December to reach a patient who later died, according to documents obtained by Berkeleyside under a Public Records Act request.
For 23 of those minutes, paramedics were waiting for a police escort, as per a standing city protocol, to ensure they could avoid the protests Dec. 7 and reach the man safely after he collapsed and struggled to breathe in a large affordable housing complex downtown. The Berkeley Fire Department’s average response time is 5.5 minutes.
The response time was so delayed that a Berkeley paramedic was required by law to file an “Unusual Occurrence” form with Alameda County. Paramedic supervisor Rachel Valenzuela filed the form Dec. 9, less than two days after the Dec. 7 call on Kittredge. The form indicated that patient care had been affected during the call, and replied in the affirmative to the question of “Could this event cause a community reaction or represent a threat to public safety?” Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong said Tuesday he could not clarify what “this event” referred to, but said the addendum to the form provided additional detail.
Nearly all medical information was redacted from the documents, but they did reveal that three paramedics provided advanced life support to the man during his eight-minute journey to the hospital, where he arrived about 52 minutes after dispatchers first received a 911 call about his condition.
The Alameda County coroner’s office identified the man Thursday as Alvin Henry Jones Jr., a 63-year-old Berkeley resident who died of natural causes. According to the coroner’s office, Jones died Dec. 9 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley. Jones reportedly is survived by a sister who lives in New York, but Berkeleyside was unable to locate her prior to publication.
In the addendum, Valenzuela wrote that an engine and medic were dispatched at 6:40 p.m. to Kittredge Street — about a minute after the initial call — but were directed by a commander “to stage in quarters due to protest activity in the immediate area of the call. It was reported to the crews a large group of protestors were within a block of the call and the medical response were to stage in quarters until a police escort could escort us to the call.”
The team waited for police at Fire Station 2, at 2029 Berkeley Way, and received periodic updates on its computer system about the call, according to the addendum. At 6:46 p.m., according to another Berkeley Fire Department report that included a log with time-stamps, the reporting party from Kittredge called dispatch again. Details about that call were redacted, as were other updates related to the man’s medical condition at 6:40 p.m., 6:49 p.m. and 7:03 p.m.
Berkeleyside reviewed scanner recordings to learn more about the incident. In those recordings, the man was identified as a 62-year-old who had collapsed on the fifth floor of 2175 Kittredge St. A fire dispatcher said the man was having “difficulty breathing, and sweating,” adding: “The subject will be in front of the elevator.”
The crowd — which had begun walking from campus through the Southside neighborhood and on into downtown at about 6 p.m. — at that point was described on the radio as 800-strong. The group was said to be moving westbound on University Avenue from Shattuck. There was also a police barricade set up, blocking Martin Luther King Jr. Way between Addison and Center streets.
Paramedics went into the building, where they made contact with the patient at 7:07 p.m. Police officers “stayed on scene for protection,” according to the report. The patient was “quickly brought to the ambulance due to protest getting closer.” The supervisor wrote that there was a “slight delay on scene” related to the extrication of the patient, but no further detail was provided. (Dong said Tuesday he could not comment on the nature of the extrication due to medical privacy laws.) One source familiar with the call said paramedics had to revive the man at the scene before taking him to the hospital.
“While in front of building prior to transport [redacted], multiple police officers were on scene protecting EMS crews and BFD BC [Battalion Chief] was on scene stating immediate transport needed due to volatile protest and scene safety,” according to the addendum.
The man was taken to a local hospital at 7:23 p.m., with a “Code 3″ status, meaning lights and sirens were used. Three paramedics provided advanced live support during the eight-minute trip, which ended at the hospital at 7:31 p.m., 52 minutes after the first call had come in about the man’s condition.
Neighbors said Oxford Plaza — which opened in 2009 — is not a close-knit community, and that management had canceled regular meetings it used to hold for residents due to low attendance.
“They say that we’re a community, but yet they didn’t say: ‘Oh, one of our community members passed away,' ” said one woman, Rhonda, who has lived at Oxford Plaza for five years. She and others expressed frustration that management does not make efforts to inform residents about critical news in the building. A representative for Oxford Plaza did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Several city workers aware of the case told Berkeleyside the man who was assisted by paramedics later died at the hospital, and was believed to have had a heart attack. There is no way to know whether the man might have survived had paramedics reached him sooner, given the amount of information that has been released, but prompt treatment has been shown to make a difference in the treatment of heart attacks.
“When a heart attack happens, delay in treatment can be deadly,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Treatment works best when it’s given right after symptoms occur. ... Many more people could survive or recover better from heart attacks if they got help faster. Of the people who die from heart attacks, about half die within an hour of the first symptoms and before they reach the hospital.”
According to the records reviewed by Berkeleyside, it took first responders about 27 minutes to reach the man, and another 16 minutes to get him into the ambulance to leave for the hospital. The Fire Department’s average response time is 5.5 minutes.
It’s not the first time local protests have been linked to a death in Berkeley. In 2013, the city settled a lawsuit with the family of Peter Cukor, a man who was attacked and killed outside his Berkeley Hills home in 2012, after authorities said they had waited to respond to the call — which initially was not categorized as an emergency — to ensure they had enough resources on hand to respond to protests in Oakland. The city admitted no fault in that matter, but agreed to change dispatching procedures as a result.
Some Blame City Policy, Rather Than Protests
Fire Chief Dong said he could not release any details related to the man’s health, or ultimate health outcome, citing privacy laws covering medical records. Berkeleyside first reported the death in December after several city employees confirmed, under condition of anonymity, that the man died after emergency crews were delayed in reaching him due to protests in the city Dec. 7. Since then, the city’s Police Review Commission has pledged to look into the movement of emergency vehicles as part of an independent investigation into the police response to the protests.
Some supporters of the protests reacted strongly to the December story, and said they believe the death should have been more properly attributed to a city policy that determines under what circumstances firefighters are accompanied to calls by police officers. Wrote someone identified only as “justiceplease”: “The protests in themselves didn’t do anything. Either the police delayed the help, or the paramedics delayed the help because they chose to wait for the police escort.”
Added a commenter who identified himself as Michael: “This is tragic, but it’s awfully knee-jerky to lay this squarely at the feet of protesters, the majority of whom were peaceful. Civil disobedience is disruptive. You can bet that MLK delayed an ambulance or two in his time; it’s so shortsighted to draw from this one tragic incident the conclusion that the entire movement is without merit.”
Others questioned the logic of decisions made Dec. 7 by first responders, said the crowd was unlikely to have posed an obstacle for an ambulance, and said the Fire Department should have tried harder to get to the man sooner.
Fire Chief: “We Can’t Predict Whether or Not It’s Going To Be Peaceful”
Dong said in December that long-standing department policies prohibit firefighters from entering active protest zones without police escorts. Those policies date back to the late 1980s and '90s, he said, when there were riots in People’s Park as well as other demonstrations in Berkeley following the Rodney King beating by police in Los Angeles.
Berkeleyside sought all available documents regarding the Dec. 7 medical call to Kittredge to look more closely at the timeline, as well as what role the protests reportedly played for first responders that night.
Dong told Berkeleyside in December that his department fielded 16 calls in and around areas overtaken by demonstrations in Berkeley from Dec. 6-8. Those calls saw “extended delayed response times” of 5-25 minutes due to the protests, either because ambulances were unable to get through streets blocked by crowds, or because police escorts were not immediately available because officers were busy with other demonstration-related duties.
Dong said this week that Berkeley’s protocol regarding when police escorts are needed is a standard approach that is widely used. He did not have a document citation immediately available, but said he would try to locate it.
“Police and firefighters have been killed and injured nationwide getting in to violent scenes,” Dong said Tuesday. “That’s why we’re cautious when we enter any scene, whether it’s an individual assault victim or a protest that is violent, with the potential for rock or bottle-throwing … which we observed on Dec. 6, 7 and 8.”
Authorities said protesters threw projectiles at police, injuring officers, on Saturday night, Dec. 6. Members of the crowd also hurled items at police Sunday, Dec. 7, though police kept their distance from the demonstrations throughout most of the night.
“When there are protests, and there is movement of protests, we can’t predict whether or not it’s going to be peaceful,” said Dong. “Fire departments and firefighters are not immune from getting hurt or injured during protests. … We’ve seen the protests get violent, so we’re going to approach things cautiously and with safety for all responders and others involved at all times.”
Dong said there is a “standing protocol” that firefighters will not enter a scene until police determine it is safe if there is a potential for violence. He said it’s not a decision made on the fly.
“Dispatchers know to ask police, who advise when it’s safe to enter,” he said. “That’s passed on to the Berkeley Fire Department. We work with, and wait for, the law enforcement determination about when it’s safe to enter.”
Dong said the Fire Department does not track fatalities in the city and does not keep a record of wait times on calls for police escorts. He said, in addition, he could not speculate about how current police staffing numbers might be impacting those wait times.
“Generally, when we get calls that involve violence, the police department gets there pretty quick,” Dong said. “Response times are generally pretty fast when there’s violence or the potential for violence.”
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