By Larry Barszewski
If you’re at the beach and you have a medical emergency, rescue crews say they will do what it takes to get you the help you need.
That’s not what Kim Jones experienced when she and a friend were snorkeling off the coast of Ocean Ridge near the Ocean Club of Florida and a man-of-war wrapped itself around her friend’s ankle, stinging the woman with its venomous nematocysts. The two headed directly to shore, where Jones had someone call 911 after her friend’s condition worsened.
Jones, who lives in Ocean Ridge, says the Boynton Beach Fire Rescue paramedics didn’t head straight to her friend when they arrived. Instead, she says they were waiting for the woman to be brought off the beach to them or — as ended up happening — for the arrival of an Ocean Ridge police ATV to bring one of the paramedics with oxygen and a medical box to the woman.
“This woman is definitely in anaphylactic shock. She’s on her way to hyperventilating. Her pulse is rapid. Nausea’s setting in. I need help,” Jones says of the Feb. 10 incident, in which private lifeguards from the club tried to assist. “I’m there and I’ve got nobody coming to help me. As a visual thing, it was horrible, because all these members are looking at three EMS standing there doing nothing and I’m screaming for help.”
Boynton Beach Fire Rescue officials say their records show a paramedic was with the patient a minute after the crew arrived. That doesn’t mesh with Ocean Ridge police dispatch reports that show more than six minutes elapsed based on fire rescue’s reported arrival time.
Boynton Beach Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Hugh Bruder says a fire-rescue inquiry based on Jones’ complaint found no negligence. The woman recovered after being treated at a hospital.
“Everyone did the right thing,” Bruder says. “To my knowledge, they were there for a very short period of time until the crew [member] was brought to the patient.”
The explanation seems at odds with one Jones had received earlier from Assistant Chief Jarvis Prince, which was in defense of having a patient brought off the beach to paramedics if at all possible.
Prince said many times it’s easier and quicker for patients to be brought off the beach to them. Paramedics have up to 80 pounds of equipment with them — equipment usually placed on a stretcher that has wheels that can’t be used in beach sand, he said.
“If it’s a life-threatening situation, we bring ourselves down to the patient,” says Prince, whose department also serves Briny Breezes. “It’s based on the severity of the call itself.”
Other departments describe how they work
Other fire-rescue departments serving south Palm Beach County beach communities say their crews have no hesitation about going onto the beach to treat patients.
“We’re going to treat them in the best manner possible, wherever they are and then move them if we need to move them,” says Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spokeswoman Tara Cardoso, whose department serves South Palm Beach, Manalapan, Lantana, Lake Worth Beach and the Boynton Inlet. “We’re completely mobile. We have to move our gear all over the place. We have backpacks.”
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue responded to 30 calls to 911 last year on or near the South County beaches in its coverage area. Cardoso offered these tips for people at the beach in case an emergency arises:
• Know where you are on the beach relative to your surroundings, so 911 crews can quickly find you.
• Heed all beach warnings, including for rough surf, rip currents or marine life.
• Know if the beach is guarded and if so, at what time lifeguards leave for the day.
Dani Moschella, spokeswoman for Delray Beach Fire Rescue, which also provides emergency services in Highland Beach, says hard-to-get-to places come with the job — and the beach is no different.
“Think of all the difficult spots paramedics go to reach patients. They’ll go anywhere,” Moschella says. “They’ll go on a roof or to someone hanging from a scaffolding. They’ll go into confined spaces, say to someone trapped in a pipe. … They go in canals. They extricate people from cars.”
Delray paramedics, who responded to about 40 beach emergencies in 2020, are often assisted by the city’s on-duty lifeguards, who are certified emergency medical technicians and who may already be on the scene. In some situations, lifeguards may bring people to a meeting point that’s more accessible to paramedics.
“It’s always going to be a game-time decision by the paramedic based on what that person requires,” Moschella says. “For example, if there is someone showing signs of heat stroke, and the person can walk, it might be smarter to have him or her taken to the pavilion and wait for the rescue in the shade.”
Delray Beach lifeguards will also respond to emergencies in Highland Beach, even though no lifeguard towers are there, Moschella says. “If they become aware of a swimmer in distress in Highland Beach, either from a 911 call or by seeing the person with binoculars, they would respond on an ATV and assist the person or assist firefighters with the call.”
As in Delray Beach, Boca Raton Fire Rescue frequently works in tandem with its city’s lifeguards, who are also trained as emergency medical technicians and who have ATVs that can transport patients.
“All our Ocean Rescue personnel are EMT certified and capable of rendering aid, again depending on the severity. We have situations where the lifeguards will begin treatment at their level and then bring the patient to us,” Boca Raton Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Jason Stout says in an email to The Coastal Star. “It may not be easy or conducive for the lifeguards to move the patient, therefore FD personnel would go to the patient.”
Stout adds: “Each call and patient is different and unique, so there is no set standard. The goal is to get immediate help to the patient.”
Reports disagree on response times
Three months after the Ocean Ridge incident, Jones and the Ocean Ridge police said they still had not received any update from Boynton fire rescue about the investigation of its handling of the February incident.
Ocean Ridge Police Lt. Richard Jones, no relation to Kim Jones, says the February situation was not typical. Usually, a paramedic is already making his way to a patient when given a lift by the police ATV, not waiting to be picked up, he says.
“I’ve never seen that happen before,” Lt. Jones says. Ocean Ridge has had nine beach emergencies so far this year and eight each in 2020 and 2019.
During the February incident, private lifeguards from the nearby Ocean Club were with the woman and had a device to help her breathe before the paramedic was brought down, according to police and fire rescue.
But Kim Jones feared her friend needed more attention and other treatments sooner and says more concern should have been shown by the waiting paramedics.
According to fire-rescue reports, the crew arrived on the scene at 11:32 a.m. and a crew member was with the woman at 11:33 a.m. after being transported to her by Ocean Ridge police. But Ocean Ridge police reports show the ATV officer didn’t even leave from the garage until 11:33 a.m., wasn’t on the scene until 11:39 a.m., and didn’t take the paramedic to the woman until 11:40 a.m.
Both say the other’s times don’t make sense. If fire rescue is correct, then it took the ATV officer only a minute to get from the police station to the beach, pick up the paramedic and take the paramedic to the woman, Lt. Jones says.
But Bruder says he doesn’t see how paramedics could assess and treat the woman for just five minutes before leaving to take her to the hospital, as the police timing would indicate. Both police and fire-rescue reports say the scene was cleared at 11:45 a.m.
Kim Jones says she wouldn’t have had to ask the lifeguards twice to go up to the paramedics to get one of them to come down, if one was already with her friend within a minute of arriving. The whole incident has made her wary of being involved with another beach emergency.
“If I ever am an onlooker and do a rescue on the beach again, I’m basically going to have to count on myself, because I’m not sure if EMS is going to get down to me and how quickly any transportation is going to arrive,” Jones says. “It’s been a big eye opener for me.”