By Nirvi Shah
The November night Bill Dunn choked to death, it took Palm Beach County Fire Rescue nearly 13 minutes to get to his home just outside the Boynton Beach city limits.
During the painful wait for paramedics, the dispatcher tried to help Dunn’s friends fill his lungs with air, and get him to vomit and dislodge the food caught in his throat. His friends attempted to follow the dispatcher’s instructions, pleading with the dispatcher to send help, but Dunn had a seizure and stopped breathing.
“We have people dispatched. Help is on the way,’ the dispatcher said again and again.
But by the time help arrived, Dunn had stopped breathing. He was dead.
Palm Beach County help was coming from more than five miles away, from a station at Military Trail and Woolbright Road.
Scarcely a mile away, a Boynton Beach Fire Rescue station had no idea about Dunn’s blocked airway. “We never want to see a tragedy like that happen again,” said County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who represents the area where Dunn lived, known as the county pocket. Abrams met with Palm Beach County Fire Chief Steve Jerauld and Boynton Beach Fire Chief William Bingham in January to find a solution.
“Boynton Beach stepped up to say that they would work out an agreement where they would cover that entire area in the future,” Abrams said. “A tragedy is just a tragedy unless something good comes out of it.”
The agreement would most likely have to be approved by the rest of the County Commission, Abrams said, but he doesn’t expect anyone to vote against it. Any financial obligation on the county’s part would be addressed when the agreement is proposed to the commission, he said.
Boynton Beach Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Lewis said it is too early to discuss the arrangement. “At this point, it is still a conversation rather than anything formal,” Lewis said.
County pocket resident Mike Smollon, a retired firefighter and one of Dunn’s friends, was told of his death the morning after it happened. He took it upon himself to investigate.
“He was 48,” Smollon said. It was at his prompting that Abrams met with both fire rescue agencies. “Someone shouldn’t die because of choking to death.”
Smollon, who worked for Boynton Beach Fire Rescue for 28 years, said he is looking forward to better emergency services for residents of the county pocket. But he is still concerned about how the 911 call on the day of Dunn’s death was handled.
He remembers Boynton Beach paramedics and firefighters responding to calls on behalf of the county many times, both in life-threatening and more routine situations.
“I was in charge of my shift for the last six or seven years,” he said. If county dispatchers called, the procedure was “you send the help. Then you ask questions. Never refuse. Never ever refuse.”
But in Dunn’s case, Boynton Beach was never notified that he was choking to death, so it couldn’t respond.
The agreement between the county and Boynton Beach will have to change all of that.
“They have to get the call,” Smollon said. “That’s all the county’s going to have to do.”