Mom's call to 911 raises questions

911 call had three long pauses between call-taker and woman


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Questions emerged Thursday about how the emergency call of a McCandless woman charged in the drowning death and attempted drowning of her two youngest sons was handled.

The 6-year-old son of Laurel Michelle Schlemmer, 40, remained in a hospital without brain activity Thursday, two days after his 3-year-old brother died and the two were found unconscious on the bathroom floor of the family's home on Saratoga Drive.

Ms. Schlemmer, who is charged with homicide and other crimes, told the Allegheny County call-taker she thought her boys had drowned in the bathtub. The call was punctuated by three pauses -- each between roughly 15 and 40 seconds.

At one point, the call-taker asked Ms. Schlemmer if she was "right by" 6-year-old Daniel and 3-year-old Luke, who died later that day. Ms. Schlemmer said she was in the study and the call-taker told her to return to them.

"Tell me when you're right there," he said.

"I'm here," she said.

The call was silent for 40 seconds.

"Hello," Ms. Schlemmer said.

"Yeah, I'm here ma'am. I was waiting for you to tell me if you were in the bathroom."

"Yeah, yes, I said I am," she said. "I said, I am."

Some who work in dispatch or emergency medicine questioned why there was such a long pause. Others pointed out that the children might have been beyond the point of saving when Ms. Schlemmer called 911.

Many questions remain unanswered. County officials refused to identify the call-taker or release any information about his history with the Emergency Operations Center. They refused to release any information about their typical protocols for responding to drowning or near-drowning events or for guiding call-takers on when to instruct someone to do CPR.

Alvin Henderson, chief of Emergency Services for Allegheny County, released a statement saying he had asked county police to investigate how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained information about the 911 call. He said that if the information was provided by someone in the 911 center, that person could be disciplined, possibly terminated.

"The County's policy is not to release any 911 recordings or transcripts publicly as the public interest in that call does not outweigh the interest in nondisclosure," he said.

Allegheny County Councilman James Ellenbogen said he would like to learn more about the 40-second pause but would be content waiting until the county district attorney felt officials could discuss the matter without jeopardizing the case.

"Forty seconds seems awful long," he said.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency oversees certification and training for 911 call-takers and dispatchers but does not mandate how they must respond to particular types of calls, such as drownings, spokesman Cory Angell said.

Sherri Lovett, the 911 coordinator for Elk County, questioned why there was a 40-second delay in the call. Elk County trains its call-takers not to allow long gaps of silence. Instead, they are advised to fill the silence by repeating questions or reassuring callers that they're sending help. Ms. Lovett said if she didn't hear the woman, she would have checked in right away.

"I guess in a dispatcher's mind I wouldn't think it would take that long" to get from the study to the bathroom, she said. "I would think that you would get an update."

Other things may complicate matters for the call-taker as well. Ms. Schlemmer said first that she was by her sons' sides, in the bathroom, but later that she was in the study.

About four minutes into the five-minute call, the call-taker began walking Ms. Schlemmer through steps to recuscitate the children. Paramedics from McCandless arrived seconds later. It wasn't clear from the recording when the paramedics were dispatched.

Physicians and medical examiners disagree on how long a person can go without attempts at resuscitation before all hopes of reviving someone are lost.

Allegheny County medical examiner Karl Williams, who declined to discuss the Schlemmer case specifically, said people who drown lose consciousness in a matter of seconds and die in a matter of minutes.

"Is it three minutes? Is it five minutes? Is it seven minutes? It depends on the circumstance," he said.

More crucial than the interval between when someone calls 911 and when someone instructs them in CPR, is the interval between when an incident happens and when someone calls 911, Dr. Williams said.

Alfred Sacchetti, a fellow with the American College of Emergency Physicians who heads an emergency department at a Camden, N.J., hospital, said that even if Ms. Schlemmer had performed CPR without delay, it's unlikely it would have made a difference in the outcome.

"I don't think there's any outcome or effect you can attribute to that four minutes where there's nothing going on," he said.

And he said without further information, it's difficult to judge why there were spells of silence.

"I'm willing to bet that there was a frantic amount of activity going on during those four minutes," he said.

Also Thursday, Ms. Schlemmer appeared via video for a bond hearing before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning. Ms. Schlemmer, who wore a black suicide prevention vest, said nothing and looked blank.

Judge Manning ordered her to undergo an evaluation at the Allegheny County Jail's behavior clinic and also gave permission for a psychiatrist retained by the family to evaluate her. County police wrote in a criminal complaint that Ms. Schlemmer told them she heard "crazy voices" before she pushed her children underwater. Her attorney, Michael Machen, did not comment.


Paula Reed Ward contributed. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com.


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