Two volunteer firefighters in Stafford County put on leave for transporting a gravely ill toddler to a hospital in a firetruck — instead of waiting for an ambulance — were reinstated Monday, a day after their story unleashed a wave of criticism.
The temporary suspension of the two firefighters, who were lauded by the family of the 18-month-old girl, came to symbolize a slavish adherence to bureaucratic guidelines over decisive action during an emergency. But Stafford County officials said in a hastily called news conference Monday afternoon that they were reinstating Capt. James Kelley and Sgt. Virgil Bloom to the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.
The county’s fire chief, Mark Lockhart, said a review of the Feb. 27 incident found that the firefighters did not follow department protocol, but conceded “there are situations that dictate decisions must be made on the fly.”
“We did find that department protocol was not followed and that will be addressed with the individuals involved,” Lockhart said.
On Monday, a Facebook page calling for the firefighters to be reinstated had 7,500 likes, and the mayor of a town close to the firehouse — who was not involved in the decision — said she had received critical emails from across the country.
Both Kelley, a paid D.C. firefighter, and Bloom are part of the Falmouth fire department, a mostly volunteer firehouse that is overseen by Stafford County’s professional fire chief. In a sign that tension still exists, Lockhart said Monday that he had offered to meet with the Falmouth station’s chief and the previously suspended firefighters, but they declined.
“It’s been a trying eight days, but I’m glad they’re back,” Christopher Smith, the chief of Falmouth’s volunteer unit, said in an interview.
“I’m just happy to be back in the firehouse and run calls,” Kelley said by phone from the firehouse Monday evening at the start of a shift. He said supporters had planned to have a rally at the firehouse at 7 p.m. Monday.
Lockhart said the Feb. 27 incident came under review because it was “highly unusual” to transport a patient in a firetruck.
“The care provided to the patient was not the question,” he said. “Our focus has been on the decision to transport the patient in the firetruck.”
Kelley, the officer in charge, was one of two firefighters who arrived on the scene first after a father called 911 to report that his 18-month-old daughter was having seizures in the car while he was running errands. When Kelley arrived, the girl, Lena Nunamaker, was motionless and blue.
Kelley, who had gotten imprecise information about the exact location of responding medics, decided to put Lena in the back of the firetruck and take her to Mary Washington Hospital. He laid her across a row of bucket seats, put an oxygen mask on her and stood next to her.
At the time Kelley decided to take Lena in the truck, Lockhart said, a life support ambulance was 1.7 miles away and would have arrived in three to four minutes. He said he did not know if that delay would have made a difference. Lena’s father, Brian Nunamaker, said in a statement Sunday that neurologists had told him that a quick response is critical when treating seizures.
Lockhart also said Monday that Kelley was not certified to provide basic life support in Virginia but called that “largely an administrative matter” because Kelley had a national certification. Neither firefighter had approval, however, from the county’s medical director to provide care, Lockhart said.
The incident is still under review by the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, but a spokeswoman said Monday such a review can take up to 45 days. Among the possible results of a state investigation into emergency medical responses are a verbal warning, a written citation and suspension. The state can also take no action if there’s not enough evidence of a state violation.
Lena’s father said Sunday that Kelley and Bloom “simply had the best interests of our daughter’s care in mind,” and called them “heroes.”