When the police officer entered a room at a southern California care facility last month, he found a panicked nurse performing chest compressions on a patient, body-camera footage shows. The patient was in cardiac arrest, and the staff did not have the proper equipment to help, according to a police report.
But just outside the entrance of the building stood paramedics equipped with possible lifesaving tools. They had refused to cross the threshold, claiming it was against state covid rules, according to the report.
So the officer jumped into action, helping the staff push the bed, which was not on wheels, through the building and out the front door to the first responders from the Rialto Fire Department.
The patient, who has not been identified by authorities, was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The officer's five-minute body-camera video troubled city leaders, acting Fire Chief Brian Park said in a statement Wednesday. In response, the fire department placed the paramedics on leave pending a third-party investigation, and the city council ordered the public release of the footage.
"We want to have a thorough investigation, and the actions [of the paramedics], if they were not in any way in keeping with policy, or even if it was, it will be addressed," Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson said at a city council meeting last week.
The paramedics outside the care facility might have been referencing an outdated April 2020 coronavirus memo from the San Bernardino County Fire Chiefs' Association, which noted that "personnel responding to long-term care facilities" should take steps to "minimize any potential risk for exposure," according to KTTV. One solution was for the dispatch centers to request the facility bring the patient outside. But the memo also said that if a patient cannot be moved, a first responder can enter and "interact with the patient."
Officer Ralph Ballew arrived at the Rialto Post Acute Care Center, about 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, before 8 p.m. on Nov. 17, responding to a call that said a patient was "undergoing cardiac arrest" and "no longer breathing," the police report said. When Ballew pulled into the parking lot, he said he noticed Rialto Fire personnel standing at the entrance of the building. They had responded to a report of a patient in "respiratory distress," the fire department said in a statement.
A few minutes later, the officer observed a nurse shout to the paramedics for help, Ballew said.
"He's having cardiac arrest!" the nurse exclaimed, the officer recalled.
But the paramedics responded that the patient had to be brought to them since they were not allowed to enter the building, according to the report.
A second employee pleaded for help and said they were providing CPR and "could not move the patient and disrupt the rescue effort," Ballew wrote in his report.
"You are doing the same thing we would have to do if we went in," one of the fire personnel said, according to Ballew. "So, hurry up and bring him out so we can help."
Ballew said one of the first responders then turned to him and said if the care center staff did not like the policy, they "should call their congressman," the report states.
Soon after, Ballew entered the care facility to search for the patient in distress. As the officer made his way through the hallways, he encountered "distraught hospital employees pleading for help" and "visibly upset by the lack of effort" from the paramedics, according to the report.
Once he arrived in the patient's room, Ballew said he noticed a care center attendant doing CPR as others struggled to move the patient's industrial hospital bed. The officer jumped in to help push the bed toward the entrance.
"Despite being in their line of sight, fire personnel still insisted on [the patient] being brought to them outside before they began life saving efforts and made no effort to assist me in getting [the patient] outside," Ballew said.
Once outside, one of the first responders allegedly told the nurses to "slow down" as he peppered them with questions about the patient's condition. The nurses were visibly agitated, Ballew said.
The paramedics transported the patient to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, less than two miles away, in Colton, Calif., where he was pronounced dead at 8:38 p.m.
In interviews with police days after the incident, care facility employees, who are not identified, said they rely on paramedics for help with "advanced life support care to patients who are in cardiac arrest." Those situations include defibrillation, intubation, IV access and medication administration, according to the report.
Staff added they had called paramedics several times since the start of the pandemic and never encountered responders refusing to enter the building. One care center employee, who was on the phone with emergency dispatch during the incident, said the dispatcher insisted the paramedics "have to come in," the report says.
One staff member sent a complaint to Rialto Mayor Pro Tem Ed Scott, who then reviewed the body-camera video footage along with the rest of city council members, KTTV reported.
"It is difficult to watch the tape," Scott said.
In a statement, Park, the acting fire chief, said the department is focused on providing "compassionate service" and that he, personally, would "ensure the independence of the outside investigation."
Robertson, the mayor, offered her condolences in a statement on behalf of the city council.
"Our prayers are with the patient's family, as well as our police officer and care center staff who had to endure such an unimaginable situation," Robertson said.