Incorrect address delayed rescue effort of woman who died of asthma attack

Cristine Herek was adamant about two things when she called Douglas County 911 on her cellphone: She was dying because she couldn’t breathe, and her address was 4847 Sahler St.

She was wrong about her address. That was where she worked, but she was at home on that May night.

It took nearly an hour for help to reach Herek’s house.

By then, it was too late.

Police found Herek, a 54-year-old administrative worker for Heartland Family Service, dead of an asthma attack early May 17 on the front porch of her home at 4327 Erskine St. That’s less than one block from an Omaha fire station.

Attorneys for Herek’s survivors have filed claims against Douglas County and the City of Omaha, alleging that the county and city were negligent in not doing more to find Herek faster.

A lawsuit is likely to follow.

Douglas County officials, including 911 director David Sleeter, declined to comment. They cited the pending litigation.

Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz has said the city does not believe it is responsible for Herek’s death.

The attorneys for Herek’s survivors had based many of the allegations in their initial claim on things that relatives said they had heard about what transpired the night Herek died.

The World-Herald obtained recordings of calls and dispatches through a public records request.

Those records show what dispatchers and first responders did to determine where Herek was, and how they eventually found her.

The records reveal that Herek gave 911 the wrong address emphatically and repeatedly.

The records also include a troubling phone conversation between a dispatcher and a firefighter about Herek. Her family and their lawyer, Ben White, said that conversation implies that 911 personnel did not take Herek’s distress seriously enough.

The dispatcher on that call, Lynn Noveski, also was involved in Herek’s initial call to 911. Noveski, a 19-year veteran of 911 communications, has been fired, according to Douglas County officials. She is appealing her termination.

“In retrospect, she is remorseful over the language that was used in an internal phone call,” said Angela Forss Schmit, an attorney for Noveski. “At all times, she took (Herek’s) call seriously and cared about the well-being of the caller, and took every effort to locate the caller with the tools that she had.”

The records also indicate that the technology available to Douglas County 911 for locating callers by their cellphone signals did not help to find Herek. Dispatchers received only the location of the cellphone tower that the signal went through, a mile away near Benson High School.

The 911 center’s inability to find a person’s location by a cellphone signal is an issue in a separate lawsuit Douglas County is facing.

Julie Edwards, the sister of two men who were shot to death last year by her former boyfriend, filed suit against the county in October. She alleges that pieces of Douglas County’s 911 system were deficient, and that the county’s Emergency Communications Department was negligent in its handling of the response to the shootings of her brothers, John and Jason Edwards of Papillion. One of them called 911 on a cellphone during the incident.

Douglas County has not responded to Edwards’ allegations. It is expected to file a response next week.

The Herek situation offers another cautionary tale for the public when calling 911 on a wireless device. People should not assume that 911, police and fire personnel can locate them by their phone signal. The 911 center does not always automatically receive a caller’s location from the telephone companies. So 911 often cannot pinpoint a wireless caller’s location. Callers should assume that it’s up to them to tell 911 where they are.

Cristine Herek called 911 at 12:06 a.m. on May 17. She was gasping and sounded panicky.

“911, do you need police, fire or medical?” asked the emergency operator, Ranee Ricker.

“I can’t breathe,” Herek said.

She immediately started saying an address, but at first she could only get out numbers: “4847.”

Herek repeated those numbers twice. She said, “I’m passing out,” as the operator transferred her to a fire and rescue dispatcher.

Herek told the dispatcher, “I can’t breathe.”

The dispatcher, Noveski, asked for Herek’s address.

“4847 Sahler. I’m dying!” Herek said loudly.

The dispatcher repeated the address. Herek confirmed it.

“What’s the apartment number?” the dispatcher asked.

“Please,” Herek said. “Please.”

“What’s the apartment number?” the dispatcher asked again.

“It’s not an apartment!” Herek yelled, crying.

The dispatcher asked for Herek’s phone number. At first, she couldn’t think of it.

“Look, I’m going to have some help on the way,” Noveski said. “If you calm yourself down and stop yelling, you’ll probably do a lot better.”

“I can’t breathe!” Herek said. Then she blurted her cellphone number.

“OK, like I said, ma’am, help is on the way, you need to calm yourself down,” the dispatcher said. “If anything changes, before they get there, give us a call back.”

“Hurry, please,” Herek said.

The call ended. It’s unclear from the recording which party hung up.

Within a minute, at 12:07 a.m., a 911 dispatcher sent an Omaha Fire Department truck and ambulance to 4847 Sahler St. for a “caller that can’t breathe.”

It appears that firefighters in Truck 41 arrived at 12:12 a.m., and Medic 34 at 12:16 a.m.

A firefighter radioed dispatch to ask if there was an apartment number. A dispatcher said there was none, that the caller had said it was a house.

The dispatcher said she was showing that the Sahler Street address was Nebraska Collaborative Services. The firefighter said that’s what it was.

It’s actually Nebraska Family Works. The program, a part of Heartland Family Service, has apartments with “supportive services related to drug rehabilitation for pregnant women, young mothers, and families,” according to the agency’s website.

Herek had worked there for a little more than a year, said Charli Hathcox, communications manager for Heartland Family Service. But Herek did not live at the apartments.

Firefighters and 911 personnel did not know those facts at the time first responders arrived at the Nebraska Family Works apartments. Nor did they have her name.

Noveski tried to call Herek back on her cellphone. It rang six times and went to voicemail.

Noveski and another dispatcher, Dawn Evans, called Herek’s cellphone a combined four more times over the next 20 minutes. There was no answer.

Noveski had a check done for previous calls to 911 from Herek’s cellphone number, Schmit said. There had been one such call, from a “Tina” from 4847 Sahler St., Schmit said.

Meanwhile, firefighters radioed to dispatch that they had determined that Herek worked at the Sahler Street address and they knew her name.

But that did not solve the mystery of where she was.

“No one here knows her address,” the firefighter told 911 by radio.

Unable to locate the caller, the firetruck crew went back into service at 12:40 a.m., meaning they were available for other calls. The medics did the same at 12:44 a.m.

But dispatchers had not given up. They asked the Truck 41 crew to call dispatchers by phone with Herek’s first and last name.

A Truck 41 firefighter, whose name could not be gleaned from the records, made that call at 12:42.

He told Noveski the caller’s name was Tina Herek, although he didn’t know how to spell it.

“Well, it’s pissing me off cause she was … she was being all dramatic, I’m dying, I’m f—ing dying, and she was all dramatic,” Noveski replied.

“They said she has asthma, so …” the firefighter interjected.

“All right,” the dispatcher replied.

The firefighter said nobody at the apartments had an emergency contact number for Herek.

“All right,” Noveski replied. “I’m going to do a cellphone trace, too. If she wants to play the game of (unintelligible), we’ll go knock her door down.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if that’s a work phone that just tags back to her … cause she works here, I’m not sure,” the firefighter said.

“No,” Noveski replied. “It’s hitting over by Benson, but she said that was her ad …, I mean, I asked her twice, and I asked her like three times what her apartment number was, and she’s like, I’m f—ing dying, I’m f—ing dying.”

The firefighter replied that maybe “she’s not that sick then.”

Noveski confirmed Herek’s name again.

“OK, I’ll see what I can do with that,” she said.

A 911 operator then called a Verizon department that helps law enforcement agencies. Donna McKain called the Verizon Security Assistance Team at 12:43 a.m. She gave Herek’s phone number and asked for subscriber information.

It took a few minutes, because Verizon had to verify that the phone had been used to call 911. Once Verizon did that, the employee revealed that it belonged to Herek, of 4327 Erskine St.

The 911 center finally had an address for her.

At 12:52 a.m., they dispatched two Omaha police cruisers to the Erskine house to check on Herek.

Police arrived at 1:01 a.m. An officer radioed in three minutes later: “Need to go ahead and send a squad. Female, not responsive.”

An ambulance crew arrived at 1:07 a.m. A police dispatcher had told a fire and rescue dispatcher that Herek was still breathing. But the medics radioed in at 1:10 a.m. that she was dead.

Ben White, the family’s attorney, said that 911 personnel should have called Verizon sooner. He said the recordings suggested that they didn’t take Herek’s call seriously.

But Schmit, the attorney for Noveski, said dispatchers “followed standard practice, which is to initiate the call trace once the engine and/or medics indicate that they are back in service” after being unable to locate a caller.

Schmit noted that the 911 director has been asking Douglas County and the City of Omaha for more dispatchers. The 911 center is understaffed, she said, and underequipped for an era in which most calls come in by cellphone.

“It’s a really unfortunate situation,” Schmit said.

Chancy Sigloch, Herek’s sister, said she feels bad for Douglas County dispatchers.

“I have friends who are police officers and a couple who are 911 dispatchers,” said Sigloch, a Millard North graduate who lives in California. “I know it’s a hard profession.”

But she said the recordings suggest that Herek’s call wasn’t taken seriously.

“I wish they would have checked that number quicker to get an ambulance there,” Sigloch said. “Who knows if they could have gotten to her in time?”

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