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Son’s sudden death could lead Indiana to fix how 911 works

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Did the inability of one 911 system to talk to another across a county line cost a 30-year-old Indianapolis man his life?

A common misconception is that 911 callers get the closest available first responders; that is not always the case. Boundaries for counties can get in the way. 

Matt West was getting ready for a birthday party on Nov. 16, 2019. To help plan the party, he’d stayed the night at a friend’s house in a Fishers neighborhood just north of the Hamilton-Marion County line.

At 12:30 p.m., just after lunch, Matt told his friends he was not feeling well. He was sweating profusely. Then, he passed out on the floor and not responding.

At 12:37 p.m., his friends called 911.

Then George West, Matt’s father, got a call he will never forget. “We got a call from his friends that he was unresponsive and then had called 911 so Beth (Matt’s mother) and I got in the car and raced to where my son was, frightened, you know, unimaginably frightened, and on the way there we passed a fire station” at East 86th Street and Fall Creek Road in Indianapolis.

That station was just over a mile from Matt. 

They passed Station 28 of Indianapolis Fire Department, where an ambulance would be stationed. George said that “I can distinctly remember passing that fire station and thanking God that it was so close.”

Those firefighters never got the call, though.

The 911 call went to the Hamilton County Public Safety Communications Center. Hamilton County sent the closest first responders, Fishers Fire Station 94, 2.3 miles away. But, that station’s first responders were already on a run and not available.

Fishers Fire Station 92, 3.2 miles away from Matt, were available.

It was 12 minutes after the 911 call when first responders arrived. 

George, who lives in Indianapolis, said, “I just couldn’t understand why the one that was farthest away responded when there was one so close, and that one that was closest was available at that time but never called. All of us just couldn’t understand why because, you know, Matt was in V-fib (with an irregular heartbeat) so every minute, every second counts. Life decreases by 10% for somebody in V-fib.”

Matt’s family says the first responders made every effort to save him.

According to records provided to I-Team 8 by his family, Fishers rescuers attempted to revive Matt with a defibrillator, which failed.

At 1:25 p.m., 48 minutes after the 911 call, Matt West was pronounced dead.

His family says Matt died from an undiagnosed heart condition. Lab results show his body contained caffeine; cotinine, a by-product of nicotine; and acceptable levels of a prescription amphetamine, Adderall.

Had rescuers gotten to Matt sooner, would he still be alive? That question haunts his family every day.

George has driven the routes from each fire station to the home where his son died a hundred times in the last couple years as he questions why the closest fire station wasn’t called.

The answer, he’s learned: bureaucratic lingo that does nothing to ease his pain.

The mourning father said, “So, it is just hard to believe and I think most people think, you know, when you pick up the phone and call 911 the closest available EMS, police or fire is going to respond but that is not always the case, especially if there is a jurisdictional boundary.” 

In this case, the Hamilton County Public Safety Communications Center can’t see across county boundaries, and vice versa, because of government boundaries.

Kevin Wethington, the director of Public Safety Communications for Indianapolis and Marion County, told News 8 the boundaries are a common problem that people in his line of work have grappled with for decades. “It happens pretty much every day in every 911 center. Technology has made the problem worse in some cases. There are dozens of companies that make and design dispatch systems. They are not always keen on sharing proprietary technology.” 

Wethington added that computer-aided dispatch providers, “they are commercial companies, right, and they are competitors, so there are some challenges.” 

Then there is cost.

Wethington says Marion County has one of the largest communication centers in the country, which requires millions of dollars to maintain and operate. Smaller counties don’t need and, in some cases, can’t afford the same systems.

The Marion County public safety communications director said, “Where this becomes very complicated is when we start drawing in resources from other municipalities because every time you move someone from one geographic area to another that then creates a void that dominos behind that.”

Marion and Hendricks counties have an agreement that allows both dispatch systems to see across their shared border. An incident near the county line in either county can be sent the closest available resources. This type of arrangement is uncommon, and it is an arrangement that George West believe would have helped his son.

George doesn’t want his son’s death to have been in vain and has asked Indiana state legislators to help solve the problem.

During the General Assembly earlier this year, George convinced lawmakers to take a hard look at why communication centers can’t talk across county lines.

On Jan. 18, Fishers Fire Chief Steve Orusa testified in the state Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Transportation that incidents like the West family’s experience happen far too often.

Orusa said a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) can determine the closest unit and recommend it for the best response, but problems happen when the location is close to a county border. A geographically closer agency in another county could very well be closest to respond but unaware of the situation. That’s usually because the two counties are using two different CAD systems that do not communicate with each other.

State legislation, passed by both legislative chambers and signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, has created a committee to recommend on how to address the problem. The committee meets weekly and its recommendations are due on lawmakers’ desks by Nov. 1, just a few weeks shy of the third anniversary of Matt’s death.

The solution is not going to be easy. Lawmakers could recommend regional dispatch centers, similar to what state police uses, or legislators could make funding available to smaller counties for upgrades to match neighboring counties. 

His father said, “I mean, had Matt got defibrillated sooner, you know, it could have possibly saved his life, but we will never know the answer to that question because that (nearby) firehouse was never called.”