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2 Fla. firefighter-paramedics terminated after wrongly declaring man dead

“Their clinical assessment assumed that the agonal respiration the patient took was the same as being apneic,” said Clearwater Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Ehlers

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By Natalie Weber
Tampa Bay Times

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Two Clearwater fire medics who wrongly declared a man dead in February have been terminated, Clearwater Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Ehlers announced at a Friday news conference.

Fire medics Jacob Rivero, 27, and Sebastian Pickens, 26, were placed on administrative duty while officials reviewed the incident. Their employment was terminated Friday morning, Ehlers said. Rivero was hired on April 3, 2017, and Pickens was hired on Oct. 12, 2020. Neither could be immediately reached for comment.

Rivero and Pickens responded to a call around 10 a.m. Feb. 15 after 66-year-old Thomas Maxwell suffered a cardiac arrest in a private residence in an unincorporated part of the county. After an initial check, the fire medics did not find a pulse and said Maxwell was not breathing and was “cold to the touch and completely unresponsive,” according to their termination documents. Based on this information, they declared Maxwell dead.


Photo/Clearwater Fire & Rescue

About a minute later, Pickens saw Maxwell take a breath and told Rivero — but neither of the medics took action, violating policy, according to fire and rescue documents. They reported that Maxwell was showing signs of rigor mortis in his jaw, but body camera footage from a deputy who responded to the scene showed Maxwell’s jaw moving, according to fire and rescue findings. Pickens and Rivero also did not use a heart monitor to confirm that Maxwell had no pulse, the documents said.

Pickens and Rivero left the scene after Pinellas deputies arrived. One of the deputies noticed that Maxwell was still breathing and called medical first responders, according to the agency. Largo Fire Rescue crews arrived at the scene around 10:28 a.m. and Maxwell was taken to an area hospital. He was released a few days after the incident, Ehlers said.

Maxwell could not be immediately reached for comment through his daughter Friday afternoon.

“During the investigation, both medics stated they were following the Pinellas County medical operations manual related to deceased or obvious death situations,” Ehlers said. “Their clinical assessment assumed that the agonal respiration the patient took was the same as being apneic. The two are not synonymous. The fact that the patient had an agonal respiration should have indicated to the two medics they should have reassessed their initial findings.

“This is where they failed and showed no concern for family pleas or a second consideration for the patient,” he said.

The investigation found that the paramedics’ actions were not the result of a lack of training, Ehlers said.

“Both medics had years of service as a medic and were up-to-date on all medical protocols and training,” he said. “It was not an equipment issue. They had all the advanced life support equipment at their fingertips — with more coming. They chose not to use it and canceled the others.”

Officials met with Maxwell early on, according to Ehlers. They were not able to reach his family, but he said he “would love to” meet with them at some point.

“I’ve been doing this for 45 years,” Ehlers said. “The job of a firefighter is to help people — it’s the bottom line. They didn’t help anybody.”

Ehlers said the medics were certified by the state of Florida, and it is up to those officials to determine whether their certifications are revoked. The Pinellas County medical director will review fire and rescue’s internal investigation and make a recommendation to the state, Ehlers added.

Times staff writer Amy Gehrt contributed to this report.

©2023 Tampa Bay Times.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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