Paramedics never got out of ambulance to look for woman who froze to death after calling 911 following a fall

Paramedics were on the scene for around 7 minutes, CEO says

Curtis Ambulance CEO James Baker stands at a podium.
Curtis Ambulance CEO James Baker takes questions from the media on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Evan Casey/WPR)

Paramedics with a private ambulance company in Milwaukee never stepped out of their vehicle to look for a woman who called 911 for help after she fell and struck her head while waiting for a bus in subzero temperatures, leaving the woman to die of hypothermia. 

The CEO of Curtis Ambulance is now defending the actions of his paramedics and said they won’t be disciplined.

Officials say security video showed 49-year-old Jolene Waldref slipped on the ice and struck her face on a gate while waiting for her bus after she finished work on Jan. 15. She fell face-first into the snow.

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Waldref was able to 911 call for help, her call arriving at the the dispatch center at 5:22 p.m.

But paramedics from Curtis Ambulance company who were dispatched to respond to her call could not see her from their vehicle and left.

About 20 minutes later, bystanders called 911 again after finding Waldref unconscious in the snow. They stayed with her until paramedics with the Milwaukee Fire Department arrived at 5:52 p.m. following the second call.

By that time, Waldref’s heart had stopped. Paramedics were unable to revive her.

During a press conference Tuesday, Curtis Ambulance CEO James Baker defended the actions of his paramedics, who he said responded to an intersection on Milwaukee’s north side four minutes after they received a low priority call from dispatchers.

He said they were unable to locate Waldref after driving through the intersection twice, looking a the bus stops on each of the intersection’s corners.

But the Curtis paramedics never got out of their vehicles to look for the woman.

“You can’t check behind every snow bank, you can’t check behind every walkdown alley … you do the best you can,” Baker said.   

Waldref — whom her former neighbor described as a positive person who would go out of her way to help others — leaves behind two daughters, ages 14 and 21. 

Baker said paramedics were at the scene for around seven minutes and also contacted dispatchers who called Waldref twice but were unable to reach the woman. He said he believes they did their “due diligence.”

“They would have had to get out of their car and they would have had to check each of the four bus stops,” Baker said. 

“The crew did the best they could by looking for the patient,” Baker said. “The patient was not upright, the patient was hidden by objects and was not actually at the bus station.”

Milwaukee Fire Department Assistant Chief Joshua Parish said the fire department found Waldref behind snow banks near a corner of the intersection.

Parish said paramedics with the fire department were able to locate Waldref quickly because bystanders waited with the woman until they got on the scene and waved the ambulance down.

Medical calls to Milwaukee’s 911 system are split between the the fire department’s paramedics and services provided by two private ambulance companies, Curtis Ambulance and Bell Ambulance.

Dispatchers triage calls and send ambulance crews based on the caller information.

Parish said the first call from Waldref was a low priority call.

“The prioritization of the call depends on what the caller says,” he said.

Parish declined to share the details of Waldref’s call. A WPR reporter made a public records request for the audio of the 911 calls Friday.

“We do rely on our ambulance partners to provide a service to the city and essentially for those baseline support calls that came into the system,” Parish said. “The reality is, it is a lot of (call) volume, so we do need partners to be able to handle that volume.”

When asked by a reporter if Waldref would still be alive if the Milwaukee Fire Department responded first, Parish said there was “no way of even beginning to speculate that.” 

Curtis CEO Baker said he believed the EMS system “worked as designed” in this scenario. He said false alarms are common, especially at bus stops, as he said callers sometimes call for an ambulance at a bus stop and get on a bus if the bus comes before the ambulance does. 

“To a certain extent, you can’t do patient searches for 300 patients a day,” Baker said.

Baker said the crew members, one who has been with the company for two years and another who has been there for 12 years, will not face any disciplinary action.

Milwaukee Alder Mark Borkowski, the chair of the city’s Ambulance Service Board, said it was “mind boggling” that the paramedics didn’t get out of their vehicle.

“You make the effort to drive out that way, why wouldn’t you get out and drive around?” Borkowski said. “What does it take to get to get out of your vehicle?”

Borkowski said even though Curtis and Bell are good partners with the city, he believes the incident should be a learning experience for the companies.

“If this isn’t a learning experience, then nothing is,” Borkowski said.

Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski called the death a “horrible incident with a horrible outcome.”

“The outcome is tremendous pain for that family and for that, I offer my deepest condolences,” Lipski said. 

A GoFundMe page set up for her daughters has received over $17,000 as of Monday morning. 

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