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After Serious 911 Mishaps, Rhode Island Will Now Pay for Better Training

Lagging rates of cardiac arrest survival and bystander CPR in Rhode Island could soon improve if lawmakers approve a budget allocating $220,000 to strengthen 911 call taker training.

Jason M. Rhodes, chief of emergency medical services at the Rhode Island Department of Health, holds a vintage CPR poster in his office in Providence, Rhode Island. (Kayana Szymczak, special to ProPublica)

This article was produced in partnership with The Public’s Radio, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island lawmakers are moving forward on a spending plan that includes money to train all 911 call takers to respond to cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies.

The $220,000 earmarked in the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1, follows an investigation by The Public’s Radio and ProPublica that raised questions about whether the lack of training for the state’s 911 call takers is costing lives.

The funding would, among other things, pay to train all 911 call takers to provide guidance over the phone on how to perform CPR on a person whose heart has stopped. The House Finance Committee approved the full budget by a vote of 12 to 3 shortly before midnight Friday, and it will be taken up by the full House later this week.

“It’s gonna save peoples’ lives, without question,’’ said Dr. Joseph R. Lauro, an emergency physician and member of the Rhode Island chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which helped lead the push to improve training.

Lauro’s group first sounded an alarm about the state’s low survival rate following cardiac arrests outside of a hospital nearly 1 1/2 years ago. (A study published in the May issue of the Rhode Island Medical Journal reported that the state’s survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests is well below the national average.)

“The bystanders will be able to start the life-saving process (of CPR) without us being there.’’

In every other New England state, as well as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and some other states, 911 calls for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies are handled by certified emergency medical dispatchers, or EMDs. Their training includes following carefully scripted instructions to talk a caller or bystander through performing CPR.

Lauro said the $220,000, a small fraction of the state’s $9.9-billion budget, would enable the Rhode Island State Police, which oversees the 911 center, to certify all of its 911 call takers in emergency medical dispatch and collect data to track their performance.

In March, The Public’s Radio and ProPublica reported on a 6-month-old baby in Warwick who died last year after a 911 call taker gave incorrect instructions to the family. And this month, the news organizations detailed the case of a 45-year-old woman who collapsed at a high school football game in Cumberland in August and died after four calls to 911. None of the 911 call takers recognized the woman was in cardiac arrest. And none of them instructed the callers to perform CPR.

Following the story about the death of the Warwick baby, Col. James M. Manni, Rhode Island State Police superintendent, recommended that all of the state’s 911 call takers be certified to provide emergency medical instructions over the phone before first responders arrive.

Manni could not be reached for comment Monday.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Friday that the $220,000 for training 911 call takers represents the full amount requested by the state police. “We are very conscious about public safety and addressing those needs,” Mattiello said.

Lynn Arditi is a health reporter for The Public’s Radio in Providence, Rhode Island. Email her at larditi@thepublicsradio.org and follow her on Twitter at @LynnArditi.

Do you work in emergency medical response in Rhode Island? Help us investigate. We want to know what concerns Rhode Island’s emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, emergency physicians, 911 telecommunicators and dispatchers have about the state’s emergency system and how it could better serve Rhode Islanders. Here’s how to contact us confidentially:

Have you ever called 911 for a medical emergency in Rhode Island? Fill out this form so we can get in touch and learn more.

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