I-Team: 911 Call A ‘Colossal Failure’

By Kathy Curran, WBZ-TV

MASHPEE (CBS) — A colossal failure.

That is what a Cape Cod man calls the emergency response to help his fiancé.

Brent McFarland is haunted by what happened in his Mashpee home in the early morning of September 4th, in the wake of Hurricane Earl.

He did everything he could to save his 39-year-old fiancé, Kate Gill, who was choking on a marshmallow. He watched in horror as her life slipped away.

“Kate died in my arms,” McFarland said in an interview with the I-Team. “No words can express what I go through everyday. You know, just everyday I live with this. I miss her so much.”


The couple went out for a few drinks that Saturday night and came home and went to bed around 11:30 p.m. McFarland said Kate woke up a few hours later to get a snack. That is when he heard her choking in the kitchen.

“I was out of bed instantly and down the hallway and found her standing there. I said, ‘911?’ She nodded her head and I hit 911 and I grabbed her and I started doing the Heimlich,” McFarland said.

“I tried and tried and tried and nothing was working. I looked down on the floor and saw a big marshmallow with a big bite out of it and I’m like, oh my God.”


That emergency call went to the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department, which dispatches calls for Mashpee. The I-Team has learned Rhonda Colburn, who is a trained emergency medical dispatcher, handled the call. And we’ve discovered when it comes to protocol, Colburn dropped the ball.

Colburn initially asked a few questions, but never asked if McFarland’s house is hard to find or followed up with medical instructions.

Detailed medical instructions for all kinds of emergencies, including choking, are provided to each dispatcher in the form of a bound, easy to read flip-chart.

This is an excerpt from the 911 tapes from that night:

Colburn: “What is she choking on?”
McFarland: “I have no idea; she’s foaming at the mouth.”
Colburn: “She’s what?”
McFarland: “She’s foaming at the mouth. Hold on Kate!”
Colburn: “Do you know the Heimlich?”

According to McFarland, Colburn never asked if Kate’s chest was rising, if air was entering her body freely, or if she was able to speak or cry — all questions suggested in the dispatcher’s instructions.

“She obviously did not do her job,” McFarland said.


Mashpee’s ambulance crew had a tough time finding McFarland’s house, which is on an unmarked road off of Jackbon Rd.

McFarland said a homemade sign he had attached to a tree was knocked down during the storm.

You can’t find the house on town maps and while Jackbon Road appears in the books used by Mashpee rescue crews, there’s no indication that McFarland’s house, number 52, is actually located on an intersecting, unmarked street off of Jackbon Road.

“It’s very unfortunate a young woman died,” said Mashpee Fire Chief George Baker. “Our response was hampered a little by the weather, with a very dark road, and poorly numbered homes and mailboxes. My folks responded as quickly as they can.”

Said McFarland: “I live only three miles from the station. It took them six-and-a-half minutes to drive three miles.” He called the rescue attempt a “colossal failure resulting in death.”


Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings said in a statement that he takes full responsibility for the way the 911 call was handled by the dispatcher. He admitted procedures were not followed and said he is doing everything possible to insure that this type of human error does not happen again.

Meanwhile, The I-Team has learned that Rhonda Colburn is back on the job as a dispatcher. The sheriff would not tell us whether she has been disciplined or been given any additional training.

The Town of Mashpee considers McFarland’s street a driveway, but one official said the town will work with McFarland to install an appropriate sign. The official said the town wants to avoid any confusion about the address in the future.

The cause of death on Kate’s death certificate is accidental choking. It also states that Kate was intoxicated while choking.

  • Ron Mills

    I am curious why you edited the 911 call. In all the previous playings of it on your station Mr. MacFarland states he is administering CPR and the dispatcher questions him about it since he apparently has told her his girlfriend is choking.. Not tonight. This is also the first time I’ve heard him use the word Heimlich. You are shameless.

  • blackbear

    As a 22 year Dispatcher, I have many question mainly re: the news reporting. What is a Medical Dispatcher? What is this Card File of medical emergencies? Where was the First Responder? That would be the Police Cruiser on the road who should arrive first. Was he doing CPR or the Heimlick on the victim? I have heard both. Why is the Sheriff’s Dept. dispatching? If this is a regional dispatch center, no wonder they couldn’t find the road. I’m not sure I am on board with your reporting/investigating.

  • SloppyJoe

    the benefits of living on a unmarked road

  • UpperCaper

    This I-Team report is so incomplete it’s not even funny. First of all, the dispatcher did ask about CPR and whether she could breathe or speak. Second, nowhere in this report does it mention the death certificate from the state Medical Examiner’s office that states the cause of death was choking while intoxicated.

    I live on the Cape and this happened in the next town over from me, so I’ve been following it closely in the Cape Cod Times, which had the story first and has a much better and clearer account of what happened. Including the complete 911 tape.

    It seems like “I” stands for something other than “investigation” in this case.

  • sholmes

    If this is what you call investigative news reporting, you leave a lot to be desired.
    It seems like your real purpose was to make a scapegoat out of the dispatcher.
    Several questions need to be answered. McFarland stated that when he went into the kitchen he saw a big marshmallow on the floor with a big bite taken out. But when asked by the dispatcher, what she was choking on, he said he had no idea.
    He also stated that when he asked her about calling 911 she nodded, couldn’t speak or make a sound. But somehow he herd her choking from the bedroom. Seem like there should be a real investigation. To many discrepancies.

  • Ellen

    Will not judge the dispatcher because I feel all the facts are not being reported. 22 years of service and you mean to tell me that she didn’t give out the proper instructions. This is certainly a one sided story here, and would love to hear the other side of this rather sad tale.

  • Chris

    NO one ever seems to take seriously putting up legible, large enough house numbers or signage on your property to make Fire/Poilce/EMS crews jobs easier. IT IS Mass General Law 148 Sec. 59 that your house numbers must be marked clearly. Dont expect every fire truck and ambulance to memorize every house in town. The homeowner here bears responsibility for the delayed drive time from the Fire Station.

  • Kat

    This is a devastating story but, it certainly seems like this is a case of a grieving man that can’t come to terms with the fact that he, as we all do, took for granted that nothing would happen. Ultimately, if his property had been better marked, things may have been different. We should all head the warning here!

  • Zoe

    Did any of you watch the news video? It clearly states that he performed the Heimlich manuever. The reporter also shows how the dispatcher did not ask any important questions nor did she give him any instructions. (And Ellen 22 years? Are you her friend? because that information wasn’t given. Regardless of whether she’s your friend or not you should stop denying the fact that Rhonda did not perform her job properly, and was a part of losing this woman’s life.)

    The dispatcher sat on the 13minute call being silent for at least 11 of them, listening to this woman die. – Obviously she did not perform properly.

    The Sheriff also takes responsibility that the dispatcher is liable. As well as the town for not putting up a new street sign.

    People need to clearly read an article and watch the video before making assumptions.

    I am extremely sorry for this family.

  • Cynic

    Dispatchers should be trained to understand what the person confronted with the emergency is going through. The caller is not going to CALM DOWN no matter how many times the dispatcher screams it at them.I have heard many recordings of dispatchers that are aware of this and professionally lead the caller through to the needed information.Too many times the disratcher becomes angry when the caller doesn’t follow “THE SCRIPT” and doesn’t respond in the way the dispatcher wants them to.

  • Rob

    She was my neighbor. This has been a devestating situation since it happened.

  • Robert

    Colburn Rhonda M Sgt Telecomm/Sig Operator Barnstable Sheriff’s Department $52,293.10…according to the public records………such nice salaries for such incompetence

  • Crystal

    Still waiting to see him in cuffs.Was it CPR or the hiemlich?All of the sudden they were engaged?I guess someone forgot to tell Kate!The police new how to get to his house the night one of his girl friends called the police for him threatening her with a gun.Knowing brent theres some money making scheme to go along with his current law suit of a contractor.

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