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'Scene safe' protocol keeps Aurora Fire paramedics from helping man bleeding to death

10:23 PM, Nov 10, 2010   |    comments
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With a shooter still at large, firefighters didn't think it was safe to move in.

"You just feel alone, like nobody's coming for you," 28-year-old Fisher said. "It's traumatic being shot but I was really thinking I was going to bleed to death."

Fisher had been shot during a party where he and the alleged shooter were both intoxicated.

Aurora Police and Fire changed their "scene safe" policy in August because of what happened to Fisher in an apartment complex on Temple Drive.

Today, Aurora firefighters can standby and wait for police to secure the scene and request them inside or they can decide for themselves to enter the scene to rescue and treat people. If there is any question, fire and police will speak face-to-face.

On June 25, when Fisher was shot, firefighters were playing by the rules. At the time, the "scene safe" policy said police must first secure the area and use the exact phrase, "scene safe," before firefighters and paramedics can go in and rescue or treat someone.

"We are very concerned about our safety. I don't want a firefighter killed in the line of duty," Deputy Fire Chief Dan Martinelli said. "I do rely heavily on the police department to get us to the patient safely so we can treat the patient and get out safely. If we can't get to the patient safely, we're not doing anybody any good."

Fisher and his friends believe paramedics should have risked their lives that night to help him, even though it was not clear if the suspect, James Pellouchoud, had been arrested.

"He's dying, you know what I mean?" Fisher's friend Leah Lockert asked. "It's not like he just got hurt, he's dying. He needs paramedics."

Lockert and her boyfriend, Nathan Lesjak, used Fisher's belts to tie-off his arms and legs and used his socks to sop up the blood. Dispatchers at 911 told them how to keep pressure on Fisher's wounds until the police got to the apartment to take over.

But the two police officers were also in over-their-heads when they tried to help Fisher and called paramedics for help.

"I need rescue up here as soon as we can get them here," Sgt. Michael Yorchak screamed.

The dispatchers reported that the patient was in bad condition and "not doing well." Other police officers used their flashlights to signal and call-in a fire captain sitting in a car down the road. Over and over, though, firefighters said, "No."

"We still don't have a scene safe," the fire captain replied. "I'm not coming in until the scene is safe."

"Engine 45, Engine 6 fire refusing to come in until the have a scene safe," dispatchers said.

At that point, Yorchak and Sgt. Jad Lanigan decided to save Fisher themselves. They hauled him down the stairs to the curb and left him bleeding in the grass while they once again called for help. The paramedics refused to meet them outside the building because they still hadn't heard the words "scene safe."

"It's as safe as it's going to get," Yorkchak told the dispatcher. "It's up to them whether they want to get here or not."

They did not. So the officers hoisted Fisher into the back of a police cruiser and drove him to the ambulance, which was waiting about a mile away from the scene. From there, Fisher was treated and taken to a hospital.

In hindsight, Aurora Fire officials say they should have moved in to help and ignored the policy. While officers have basic CPR skills, all Aurora firefighters are trained paramedics.

"We're equipped to provide the appropriate level of pre-hospital care and we're the ones who should be doing it," Martinelli said.

"I think if the command fire personnel had an opportunity to make a different decision, if they were faced with the same set of circumstances, they'd make a different decision," Deputy Police Chief Terry Jones said. "I think they'd respond right into the scene when they were flagged in by an officer."

The deputy police chief says it took a long time to call a "scene safe" because in the chaos, they weren't sure if they had the suspect in custody.

It turns out the shooter fled to his apartment across the hall from where the shooting occurred.

Twenty-nine-year-old Pellouchoud was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He declined to comment.

Fisher has recovered from his injuries and is back at work.

"I would like to think that the officers acted professionally and appropriately and this instance, rather heroically," Jones said.

9Wants to Know has learned Aurora's "scene safe" policy has failed before. In January, dispatchers told firefighters to stay back from an 80-year-old Alzheimer's patient who was combative. That incident prompted the first review of the policy by Aurora Police and Fire. Later that month, firefighters kept away from an injured drunk driver because no "scene safe" was called by police.

"We really dropped the ball on this," Michael Bedwell, manager of public safety communications, wrote in an internal e-mail about staging firefighters away from police for the drunk driver.

Several other fire departments, such as Englewood, Littleton, South Metro and Denver still use the "safe scene" policy where firefighters wait to be called in by police.

"They have guns, what are we going to do?" Denver Fire spokesman Phil Champagne said. "We want police to secure the scene first because we can't defend ourselves. But if someone has fatal injuries, we will ignore the policy and go in. We have plenty of guys who will break protocol in that case and just go in."

Aurora's "scene safe" policy started in 1993 after Denver firefighter Doug Konecny was shot to death climbing into a suicidal man's second-floor window. Other firefighters have also been killed around the country responding to emergencies before police officers cleared the scene.

Aurora Fire officials say they may have dodged a bullet in Fisher's case so that they can put a new policy in place for the next emergency.

"If another person's in the same situation, we'll be better prepared because of this event," Martinelli said.

If you have any news tips or story ideas, please e-mail Investigative Reporter Deborah Sherman at Deborah.Sherman@9NEWS.com.

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