Medical Emergency Mix-Up Prompts Fire Chief to Renew Call for Changes

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.

Ender Fire Department chief Harold Rohde says that a "Knox Box", like the one pictured above, could have saved precious seconds in gaining access to a patient during a recent heart attack call that his staff responded to.

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.”




  1. George Archibald says:

    My best friend, William Devries, was the apartment resident who suffered the medical emergency reported in this story. He was transported to Winchester Medical Center urgent care, where he arrived unconscious and having a life-threatening heart attack. His daughter in Charlotteville was contacted and arrived later. A son in Winchester and another daughter from out of state went to the hospital.

    I have been denied further information since the weekend by the Winchester Medical Center and the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, where I am also a veteran patient and have travelled there in the past with Bill, as his best friend. I was told by a friend who lives at Johnson Williams Apartments on Josephine Street that Bill was transported to Martinsburg, but the medical people have cited the federal health care privacy act, referenced as the HIPPA Law, to deny me current information about Bill’s status and recovery.


    It is all very sad and preventable, but I know from long first-hand experience that Bill’s life at Johnson Williams Apartments was very burdensome owing to management problems there. This “he said-someone else said” story is typical of the inept situation there. My heart is sad that Bill suffered because things did not fall into place as they should have, with all the resources we plow into our government and emergency services.

    • George. save the handwringing. If you’re not an immediate family member, then you’re not entitled to know the particulars…regardless of how tight you two are. What gives you the right to broadcast the details here to the public? Additionally, CDN, if you withheld the details, why’d you allow them to be told here?

      As a vaunted reporter, you’re bemoaning the balanced reporting of details yet feel perfectly fine making your snide insults of those involved? It is an unfortunate situation, requiring an extreme remedy, but one that ultimately ended in the patient getting medical care and the parties involved learning from it to make the next response faster and better.

      • George Archibald says:

        To Hmmm: Why the slap? Bill Devries and I were best friends, close as family, enjoyed our friendship and spent time together daily. Please don’t be offended by my grief.

        For the record, here’s the omitted paragraph “[redacted]” by editor Leonard after I telephoned him about one misplaced word in my typing, which is here corrected:

        “…I have worried after Bill’s 911 call, apparently prompted by shortness of breath that scared him, in light of his life-threatening emphysema, that the delay of emergency services to get to him quickly may have contributed to his heart attack and comatose situation when he finally arrived at the hospital…”

  2. George Archibald says:

    I have just learned from a family member that Bill Devries died on Wednesday at about 8 a.m. at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, as an apparent result of complications from the heart attack he suffered in the middle of the night before arriving at the Winchester hospital.

    The main question is whether the response delay after his 911 call contributed to his death because of the trouble EMS had getting into the building.

    It is not clear from the story whether the code for the Johnson Williams lock box had been changed, or not changed, unbeknown to the sheriff’s department, thus requiring forcible entry and delay by medics providing timely emergency treatment.

    The other question is whether apartment building leasee Community Housing Partners was negligent in not adopting the apparent industry standard Knox Box for the emergency door key, and thus creating an unsafe environment for handicapped resident Bill Devries and several other residents there who have serious medical conditions.

    From the sound of all the reported back-and-forth between Enders Fire Department and Berryville Police before entry to get to Bill, we don’t know how much time was wasted. What search did the dispatcher have to make to get the lock box code? Was there no response at the Johnson Williams emergency management number [redacted]?

    The manager lives in Berryville. Was her number on file with the sheriff’s office dispatcher, and was she called for help before the break-in was required to try to save Bill’s life?

    He was a terrific patriotic man who personally paid out of his own pocket thousands of dollars for police in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Capitol to get bullet-proof vests against terrorist attackers because the government didn’t provide them.

  3. Sir, I mean no disrespect to your or your friend, and it truly is a most unfortunate occurrence – at any time of year, but moreso here at Christmas. I pray that you and all of his family feel God’s Peace over these coming days and weeks.

    The “slap” is because you seemed to dismiss the hospitals’ following of the HIPPA mandates…then proceeded to violate your friend’s right to medical privacy yourself…seemingly so you could dust off your old “newshound” ballcap and ask your loaded questions…as if the Sheriff and the Fire Chief haven’t already investigated every possible facet and are workign to prevent this tragic “perfect storm” of circumstances from happening again.

    “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.” ~ Therein is perhaps one matter: since it was not placed with a Johnson-Williams landline, the code didn’t automatically pop up. If Sheriff Roper and other officials are confident they’ve identified areas that needed to be improved to help prevent this from happening again, then that’s fine by me. Don’t go looking for a devil behind every bush…this ain’t Watergate.