A recent medical emergency at a local apartment complex could prompt changes in how fire and medical emergency teams gain access to public buildings in Clarke County in the event of an emergency.
At around 3:15am on the morning of December 1, Enders Fire Company was dispatched to the Johnson-Williams Apartments on Josephine Street in Berryville, Virginia in response to a 911 medical emergency call. Although Enders declined to verify the specific reason for the dispatch, Clarke Daily News has learned that an elderly man living in the apartment complex reported chest pains and subsequently was transported to Winchester Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a heart attack. The victim was later transported to the Martinsburg, West Virginia, Veterans Administration Hospital where he is now recovering.
However, according to a Johnson Williams Apartments resident, who asked to remain anonymous, when medical emergency personnel showed up at the building they were unable to get past the locked front door.
“None of the residents know the access code to the front door” the building resident said. “Ambulance and rescue people are supposed to have the access code but when the fire company showed up for some reason they didn’t have it.”
According to the resident, fire personnel ultimately decided to break the glass window next to the building’s main entrance in order to enter the building and gain access to the victim’s apartment.
Johnson Williams Apartments, which is managed by Community Housing Partners, Inc. of Richmond, Virginia, a tax-exempt company that leases the building from owner Clarke County, said that it was unsure why emergency personnel were unable to use building’s access code to gain entry.
“Enders Fire Company was previously provided with the emergency contact numbers of the property manager, maintenance supervisor and regional manager. Johnson Williams also has an automated emergency call system, which is accessed by dialing the main office line. This system immediately pages the staff member on call and is recorded.” said Scott Reithel, Community Housing Partners Vice President of Property Management. “Additionally, there is an emergency key located in a lock box at the building’s entrance used to open the front door for which the Ender’s fire dispatcher has the access code. In the past, the Enders Fire Company has easily gained access to the building as well as contacted our staff for emergencies without any concerns. Why the Enders Fire Company did not use the main door access key and/or contact the emergency staff contact would be a question for them.”
Enders Fire Chief, Harold Rohde said that when rescue personnel reached the building multiple problems were encountered.
“The crew that responded to the incident was unable to open the doors as they were locked,” Rohde said. “There was an owner provided lockbox on the door – similar to a realtor’s key box – however we did not have the combination to it. Also, keys that we had in the station did not fit the lock. The crew on medic unit, after trying all doors and still being unable to gain access and after being updated on the patient’s status determined that it was medically necessary to force entry, so a window was broken.”
However, when the initial entry problems were encountered, the Enders crew followed County emergency procedures by contacting the Clarke County Sheriff’s department. But, according to Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper, emergency procedures broke down again.
“The dispatcher was significantly delayed in locating the combination information. In fact, entry had already been gained by the time the information was found,” Roper said. “Although there is no justifiable reason for the delay, the original call was placed from a cell phone, which eliminated the automatic presentation of the combination information to the computer screen that the operators use. While one communications operator remained on the telephone assisting the caller, attempts were being made by staff to locate the combination information. At one point, our dispatch sent the Berryville Police Department as well to assist with entry.”
Roper confirmed that his department maintains the combination to the building and says that subsequent to the Johnson Williams Apartments mix-up, steps have now been taken to prevent a similar incident.
“Supervisory staff from the Emergency Communications Center reviewed the tapes, and determined that our staff was delayed in locating the combination information,” Roper said. “Staff was appropriately retrained in locating this information, with the results of training and counseling documented appropriately.
Roper said that because the problem resulted from a human error rather than a policy error he does not plan to implement any policy changes.
“I am not instituting any policy changes. The procedure is appropriate,” Roper said. “There was a human error, which can happen. Our goal is to eliminate human error, with the knowledge that that is a lofty goal. When we discover human error, we evaluate why the error happened, and take the appropriate action.”
Enders Fire Chief Rohde agrees that his staff must rely on the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office for dispatch and other information but in a life threatening emergency it can be necessary to take immediate actions when information is not forthcoming.
“At the time of the incident, the dispatcher did not have the information to relay to us, so we had to take appropriate measures to try to save a life,” Rohde said.
Even so, Rohde says that there are additional steps that the County and Town of Berryville can take that may help to avoid similar problems in the future.
“I have provided the manager of Johnson-Williams Apartments information on the ‘Knox Box’ system,” Rohde said. “Enders Fire Company is registered with the Knox Box Company to provide key vaults. This is a secure system that allows the property owners to purchase and install a key-vault [on or near a door] that every fire and rescue apparatus has the key to use in case of emergency. When properly installed, a representative of the fire department will meet the property owner and place keys into the box. Only the Fire and Police would have access to the Knox Box Key. If there is an emergency in the future, they keys can be accessed without causing property damage. The cost of the Knox Box is probably less than the cost of repairing a door or window that would be damaged by forcible entry.”
Rohde said that his department has had discussions with the Town of Berryvlle about the possibility of creating an ordinance that would require the installation of Knox Boxes on certain commercial structures, but no action has taken place as yet.
“The Knox Box program is of a great benefit to the property owner, and is highly recommended by the Chief of Enders Fire Company and Rescue Squad,” Rohde said.
Residents of Johnson Williams Apartments say that for now they are just glad that the ordeal is over and that their neighbor was able to receive the care that he needed in a timely manner.
“Someone’s life was on the line that night so I’m glad that the medics were able to break the glass to get into the build,” said one resident. “I’m just happy that the guy was OK and that no one was hurt.”