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.


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