A man who collapsed while waiting for Berkeley paramedics to arrive later died at the hospital, city employees have told Berkeleyside, after large protests that wracked the city earlier this month delayed first responders.
Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong has declined to comment on the incident, saying he is prohibited from doing so because of medical privacy laws.
“Anytime there is a delay it causes us concern,” he said, speaking generally. “Our objective is to get there rapidly so we can start treating the patient.”
Several city staffers — who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak with the media — confirmed that paramedics were delayed in their response to help the man who collapsed, and said he later died at the hospital.
See the February 2015 follow-up report on this story.
There were near-daily protests in Berkeley from Saturday, Dec. 6, through Sunday, Dec. 14, in connection with police-involved killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. The most disruptive incidents took place Dec. 6 and Dec. 7.
The first night, police used tear gas and projectiles to disperse a Telegraph Avenue crowd that earlier in the night had attacked officers by hurling bottles, an ice pick and a sandbag, among other items, authorities said. The following night, officers kept their distance from the crowd which, though largely peaceful, included more than a dozen people who smashed the windows of Berkeley businesses and set debris fires as they marched through the city.
The second night, there was also a small group of people who police believe may have been responsible for attacking a man with a hammer downtown during the looting of Radio Shack, an armed robbery on Fulton and Ward streets, and shooting through the door of a Berkeley homeowner, in the 1800 block of Carleton Street, who confronted them about items they had stolen earlier in the night at Radio Shack. Those suspects — described as four young black men who at times wore white medical masks and rode BMX bicycles — remain at large.
Staffer, on man reported to have died: “Nobody could get to him”
Berkeleyside has reviewed the publicly available scanner dispatch recordings from Dec. 6 at noon through Dec. 7 at 4 a.m., and from Dec. 7 at noon through Dec. 8 at 4 a.m. During those critical hours, the majority of radio traffic related to the protests took place on encrypted tactical channels that are not available to the public.
But the calls that were broadcast over normal channels provide insight into how emergency crews responded to what they called “the hot zone,” where active protests were taking place. In some cases, Fire Department supervisors would alert teams about routes to take to avoid demonstrations in “the hot zone.” In other cases, medical crews would be told to stage at a location outside the hot zone and wait for police escorts to help them safely reach patient locations.
See complete Berkeleyside coverage of the recent Berkeley protests.
One of these incidents took place shortly before 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, at Oxford Plaza, a 97-unit affordable housing complex between Shattuck Avenue and Fulton Street. Dispatch put out a radio broadcast about a 62-year-old man who had collapsed on the fifth floor of 2175 Kittredge St.
The fire dispatcher said the man was having “difficulty breathing, and sweating,” adding: “The subject will be in front of the elevator.”
She dispatched an engine and ambulance at 6:41 p.m. A supervisor then came on the radio and told those units to “stage in quarters” — meaning to prepare to leave but to remain at the fire house, at 2029 Berkeley Way — and to switch to the tactical channel being used for protest-related operations.
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.
A police dispatcher — who is separate from the fire dispatcher — then came onto the radio to ask for a police escort to meet the fire crew on Berkeley Way. A police supervisor replied that a unit would come the station from the north, “covertly,” to meet the fire team. She said it would, however, be “delayed.”
Sometime after 7 p.m., according to the dispatch recordings, paramedics had arrived at the scene and were inside the building. (Their arrival time was unavailable because it was not reported on the publicly broadcast dispatch recordings.) Sources familiar with the incident said paramedics had to revive the man at the scene before taking him to the hospital.
As firefighters worked inside, a police unit waited outside to keep the scene secure, as crowds were still in the downtown area. A police supervisor advised an officer shortly after 7:16 p.m.: “If you need to leave, then leave,” reflecting the hands-off approach authorities had decided to take Dec. 7 after violent clashes with crowds the prior night. For the most part, throughout much of that night, Berkeley officers kept their distance from demonstrators to avoid projectiles or other types of attacks.
The officer replied: “It looks like BFD is loading the patient up” into the ambulance. “We’re gonna get out of here immediately once we have that [inaudible].”
No additional information about the Kittredge Street incident was available from the scanner recordings, but several people aware of the case said the man who was assisted by paramedics later died at the hospital. Though there is no way to know with certainty whether the man might have survived had paramedics reached him sooner — given the amount of information currently available — people familiar with the case said the demonstration posed a definite obstacle during the call.
“Nobody could get to him,” a city staffer said, of the man on Kittredge Street, who is believed to have had a heart attack. “Fire couldn’t get in without protection, and everyone was tied up. [Paramedics] were able to revive him to get him to the hospital, but it took 35 minutes to get [to Kittredge] because protesters were in the area and no one could go in safely.”
Fire chief says average response time is 5½ minutes
Berkeleyside asked Fire Chief Dong about how long it took the emergency crew to reach Kittredge, how the protest might have impacted that response, and whether a man had indeed died following the delayed response. He said he could not comment at all about the incident, or even confirm its existence, due to medical privacy laws. Berkeleyside has filed a Public Records Act request about the call, and will report back as to how the city responds to it.
A manager on site at Oxford Plaza said Thursday she had heard about the incident, but said all media requests for information must go through the company’s corporate office. A corporate representative did not respond to multiple calls from Berkeleyside requesting help to reach the man’s family or neighbors.
Thursday afternoon, a Berkeley firefighter said he, too, had heard about the man’s death, and called it “a shame.”
Dong told Berkeleyside earlier this week that his department fielded 16 calls in and around areas overtaken by demonstrations in Berkeley from Dec. 6 through Dec. 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. (The department’s overall average response time, typically, is 5.5 minutes, and delays would be on top of that.)
In one high-profile case, a pregnant woman in labor was trapped on the I-80 freeway because of demonstrators who took it over and halted traffic. The crowd was able to let the woman through to meet up with Berkeley fire officials who took the woman to a waiting ambulance, Dong told several reporters earlier this month. Berkeley paramedics took the woman to the hospital, where she delivered a healthy baby girl about four hours later. Another person on the freeway had a stroke, said Dong earlier this month, though he did not discuss the outcome of that incident.
Dong said this week that, because of medical privacy laws, he cannot comment on the circumstances or outcome of any medical call. He said he had been able to discuss the incident involving the pregnant woman because it had already been widely reported in the media. (The hospital even shared a photograph of the woman and her baby with news outlets.)
Dong also declined to say whether any of the 16 calls he counted from Saturday afternoon through Monday night could be described as “significant,” saying that would be speculation on his part.
“When we’re hindered from responding because of the number of people in the crowd, or the nature of the crowd, the impact is we will have an extended or delayed response,” Dong said. “I’m not going to send a fire truck or ambulance into a crowd without the scene getting secure. When the crowd is moved or dispersed, that’s the time when we’re able to get into a call.”
He also said longstanding department policies prohibit firefighters from entering active protest zones without police escorts. Those policies date back to the late 1980s and the 90s, 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.
“Policies were put in place to make sure first responders are safe,” Dong said. “We will not send in an engine unless there is the ability to protect it.”
He continued: “Protesters or people marching have flipped over the fire chief’s car and set it on fire,” he said, of previous incidents in Berkeley. “Firefighters have taken on bottles and rocks in the past.”
Last year, the city of Berkeley settled a lawsuit with the family of Peter Cukor, a man who was attacked and killed in the Berkeley Hills 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.
The Berkeley City Council has planned a special session to discuss the city’s recent protests in January.
Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel contributed to this report. Read complete Berkeleyside coverage of the protests. This story was updated shortly after publication to include information about the Cukor lawsuit in 2012.
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