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When inmate hangs himself, county jail calls ambulance for 'air obstruction'

Weeks ago, an inmate hanged himself in the Erie County Correctional Facility. A corrections officer cut him down, and frantic efforts began to revive him.

A prison employee phoned for an ambulance, taking care not to use the words suicide, suicide attempt or hanging when speaking with a dispatcher.

Someone needs help for an “air obstruction,” the employee said, according to calls broadcast over emergency frequencies.

Some responders found the term needlessly vague.

“ ‘Air obstruction’ means someone is choking,” said Chester Popiolkowski, president of the Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which sent a crew to the facility for this most recent suicide, the first in a county facility since 2014.

“ ‘No pulse no respiration’, that gives the crew more information about what they are walking into,” Popiolkowski continued. “What we were walking into was a code.”

A top aide to Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, Administrative Services Chief John W. Greenan, said neither the Correctional Facility in Alden nor the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo will use the word suicide quickly after a discovery. Detectives must investigate before concluding someone died by their own hand, he said.

“Foul play could have been involved,” Greenan explained by email.

It's more important to convey the nature of an injury rather than how it was inflicted, he said, and that's what prison personnel did July 19.

Greenan was asked if the ambulance medics could have been warned that the patient had no pulse, no respiration and was unresponsive — information that Popiolkowski says should have been offered.

Greenan answered that when the county prison or Holding Center calls for an ambulance, it’s primarily to transport an inmate, not to render life-saving first aid. Both facilities have medical professionals on staff who are more highly trained than emergency medical technicians, and they already will be tending to a patient, Greenan said.

Indeed, corrections officers and prison medical staff were working to save inmate Vincent Sorrentino, 31, of Buffalo, well before the Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps arrived.

“Following your logic, they should have put them on speaker phone so they can hear everything that was happening in real time," Greenan told The News. “The medical staff gave them the nature of the call and went back to attending to the inmate.”

Popiolkowski did not dispute that prison nurses and doctors possess a higher level of credentials than most ambulance personnel. Still, paramedics want as much relevant information as they can get as they head to a call, he said.

This is an election year for Howard. When he last ran, inmate suicides were more of a hot-button issue. Erie County had recently settled a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit seeking, among other things, a lower suicide rate at the county facilities, especially the Holding Center. Its suicide rate had been five times the national average for a county jail.

A list of 22 Erie County inmates who have died since Howard became sheriff

In more recent months, Howard's jail personnel were found categorizing inmate suicide attempts as "individual inmate disturbances," a label that did not trigger an automatic report to a state agency in Albany. The agency, the State Commission of Correction, told Howard's team to start following its rules or face a lawsuit.

Against that backdrop, Greenan said the use of the term air obstruction was not an early attempt to conceal information.

"There is nothing to hide,'' he said.

While the Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps sent a crew certified in advanced life support, the nearby Millgrove Fire Department rolls to many medical emergencies in Alden and sent a volunteer trained in basic life support to the prison call.

Millgrove Fire Chief Robert Eleczko agreed that “air obstruction” did not convey the gravity of the situation. He called it "a huge deal" that a fuller picture of the inmate's condition was not relayed.

Eleczko said he has asked to meet with prison officials to make emergency calls to the Correctional Facility go more smoothly. But he said he was told that everything is fine.

“Guess what?” he told The News. “Everything is not fine.”

Eleczko asked Gregory M. Gill, Erie County’s deputy commissioner for Emergency Medical Services, to broker a conversation about better procedures for calls to the Correctional Facility. Through a county spokesman, Gill refused an interview request from The News to ask how he’s progressing.

If Eleczko does get to meet with prison officials, he would raise these topics:

• While Millgrove often sends someone to medical calls, it does not run an ambulance service and does not transport patients. Both he and Greenan agree that Millgrove’s response to the prison is usually a duplication of effort. But Eleczko says his department can’t ignore a call when dispatched, and it was sent to the prison by a Lancaster dispatcher July 19. Eleczko would like a formal understanding with the prison about when Millgrove should and should not go.

• Prison staff asked the medics to take Sorrentino's body with them when they left the prison, Eleczko said. The request was denied. Both Eleczko and Popiolkowski stressed that ambulances do not transport patients who have been declared dead. Greenan, however, said that a new prison doctor was simply trying to clarify the appropriate protocol.

• The medics with Millgrove and Lancaster Ambulance 800 were kept inside the prison for 40 minutes after the inmate was declared dead, in part because of security concerns. When finally allowed to leave, Eleczko’s assistant chief, Steven Krawczyk, radioed out his displeasure: “After a short stay of being held against our will, myself and 800 are cleared,” he told the dispatcher. “You can put both of us in service.”

Greenan said much of the 40 minutes was consumed by the responders packing up their equipment, completing their reports and continuing to discuss protocol with the new doctor.

“The building was on lockdown,” Greenan said. “That makes it more difficult to move throughout the facility. Any implication that they were held against their will is totally without merit, with the exception that, because it is a jail, the officers had to facilitate their movement."

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