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A woman died after falling on the ice. The Milwaukee Fire Department is reviewing 911 calls leading up to the incident.

Report says 911 call system in Milwaukee can lead to 'delays and frustration for the caller'

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A Milwaukee Fire Department truck. Alana Watson/WPR

Jolene Waldref had just finished work in Milwaukee and was waiting for her bus when she slipped on the ice, striking her face on a gate before falling into the snow. 

The temperature was around zero degrees.

The 49-year-old called 911. When a passerby called again after finding her in the snow, Waldref was unresponsive. 

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Both calls were received by the Milwaukee Police Department and then transferred to the Milwaukee Fire Department. 

When paramedics with the fire department arrived at 5:52 p.m, about seven minutes after the second 911 call, they were unable to revive Waldref, according to a report by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office. The office is investigating her death on Jan. 15 as probable hypothermia. 

Waldref leaves behind two daughters, ages 14 and 21.

Jodi Pelczynski was Waldref’s neighbor in South Milwaukee for nearly 20 years. Over the years, they had countless barbecues and swimming pool parties with their children.

“It didn’t matter what was going on in her life or what she had or didn’t have, she was just a bright light,” Pelczynski said. “She was just a positive person — always happy, always willing to chat. She was just very nice.” 

The Milwaukee Fire Department hasn’t yet said when the calls were made, but in a statement, the department said the city’s 911 system requires calls to be transferred, and a “validated triage system be used to determine the acuity of calls as they arrive.” 

Now, the incident is being reviewed by the department. 

“We take our responsibilities very seriously, and as such, we are currently reviewing the actions of the responding units, and the recordings of the 911 call-takers,” the statement said. 

A WPR reporter made a public records request for the audio of the 911 calls Friday. Milwaukee Fire Department Assistant Chief Joshua Parish declined to answer questions about the specific incident but he said the review would be finished sometime next week. A spokesperson for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson also said the mayor would wait to comment on the incident until after the fire department’s investigation.

According to a 2018 report, when someone calls 911 in Milwaukee, the call first goes to call takers with the Milwaukee Police Department who determine if the call needs fire or medical assistance. The call can then be transferred to a Milwaukee Fire Department call taker who again questions the caller. 

“This requirement of having the initial 911 call handled twice for a fire or medical incident causes delays and frustration for the caller and could lead to possible delays or miscommunications of the information,” the report said. 

The medical examiner’s report said a paramedic’s unit was dispatched to the intersection, near the 7600 block of W. Congress Street in Milwaukee, at 5:45 p.m. They arrived at 5:52 p.m. and attempted to revive Waldref then.

Private companies also taking calls in Milwaukee  

There are currently two privately owned ambulance companies operating in Milwaukee: Bell Ambulance and Curtis Ambulance. But there used to be four, according to Bell Ambulance Director of Operations Chris Anderson, who is also the president of the Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin.

The Milwaukee Fire Department has been forced to close six fire stations in recent years due to financial constraints. The department has also seen an increase in calls for service and fewer firefighters and paramedics to respond to those calls. 

Anderson said Bell is contacted by the city for “non-life threatening” issues. Many of the ambulances also do not use lights or sirens when they’re on the way to an emergency.  

“Something that’s not an immediate life threat, it’s likely that they would get triaged to Bell,” Anderson said.

Anderson said 95 percent of the calls they get are responded to in 15 minutes or less.

“While the city has gone from four providers to two, the calls are all being handled,” Anderson said. “There’s nothing that’s falling through the cracks … it’s just become a bigger part of our business than it used to be.” 

Between Bell and Curtis, Anderson estimated around 200 calls a day are sent to the private companies. A representative for Curtis Ambulance did not respond to a reporter’s phone call Friday.

Pelczynski moved up north last year, but she and Waldref still kept in touch. She got a text from her on Christmas day.  

“She said, ‘Oh, I miss you guys,’ and I said, ‘I know, I miss you, too,”Pelczynski said. 

“And that was our last text,” she said. 

A GoFundMe page set up for her daughters has received over $16,000 as of Friday afternoon.

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