Private ambulance crew did not get out of truck to look for woman who died of hypothermia at Milwaukee bus stop, officials say

Sophie Carson Elliot Hughes
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

After receiving a 911 call about a woman who had fallen and hit her head near a bus stop in subzero temperatures, crew members with the private Curtis Ambulance service did not get out of their truck to look for the woman, whose body was obscured by a snowbank, and she died of hypothermia.

That's according to Curtis Ambulance leaders and officials with the Milwaukee Fire Department, who on Tuesday defended their actions and insisted they did nothing wrong, even as a Common Council member levied strong criticism. The crew members will face no discipline.

"They didn't do anything wrong. The EMS system here worked as designed," James Baker, president of Curtis Ambulance, said at a news conference.

The crew drove through the intersection twice but did not get out of their vehicle. Then dispatchers twice called the cell phone of Jolene Waldref, 49, of South Milwaukee, but she did not answer, as she apparently was unconscious, face-down in a snowbank. The crew left the scene, Baker said.

Curtis Ambulance president James Baker discusses the investigation into the Jan. 15 death of of Jolene Waldref during a news conference at the Alonzo Robinson Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building at 711 West Wells Street in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Curtis' vice president, Dan Robakowski, said it later became clear that Waldref's body was located between a large electrical box, a garbage bin full of road salt and a second snowbank. The bus stop where she stood did not have a shelter and is located on the northeast corner of North 76th and West Congress streets, a busy intersection with bus stops on each corner.

"They would have had to check each of the four bus stops," Baker said. "You can't check behind every snowbank."

Ald. Mark Borkowski, who is the chair of the city’s Ambulance Service Board, blasted Baker's comments and the crew's actions.

“I just think that it’s pathetic that we didn’t make the effort to get out of the vehicle,” Borkowski said. “What was the cost as far as time? A minute or two max? Really?"

911 call from Waldref prompted Curtis Ambulance crew to respond

Waldref herself was the first to call 911 shortly after she slipped and fell. Her call was initially classified with a lower prioritization, indicating less severity, so the private Curtis Ambulance was dispatched to the call.

It was only 22 minutes later, when two bystanders called 911 at the same time, that dispatchers sent a Milwaukee Fire Department crew to the scene. They found Waldref because the callers were standing near her body and waved down the truck, said Assistant Fire Chief Joshua Parish.

More:Milwaukee Fire Department to review 911 call system after woman was found dead at bus stop

Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski discusses the investigation into the Jan. 15 death of of Jolene Waldref during a news conference at the Alonzo Robinson Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building at 711 West Wells Street in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Fire Department officials were clearly frustrated Tuesday. Fire chief Aaron Lipski addressed reporters at the news conference following several questions about the circumstances of Waldref's death.

"We’re telling you everything we know. We have nothing to hide," Lipski said. "This is an absolutely horrible situation. The only thing we can offer at the end of it is the accurate information, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We are deeply, deeply saddened by this loss. We are as frustrated as you are."

Meanwhile, Curtis Ambulance leaders said protocol did not dictate its crew members had to get out of the truck to look for a patient, as they get many calls in a day, and there are many false alarms at bus stops. People commonly call 911 at bus stops and then board the bus when it arrives, Baker said.

More:Timeline of Milwaukee bus stop freezing death, from her 911 call to response from ambulance, fire

A reporter asked Baker if he was "satisfied with (the crew's) actions that day," and he said, "I am."

"It's like a series of unfortunate events. And it's sad. But it's the reality of what we deal with in EMS every day of the year," Baker said.

Citing health privacy rules, Fire Department officials would not elaborate on the content of the first 911 call from Waldref, which came into the dispatch center at 5:22 p.m., or why it was classified as lower priority. Parish said it was not clear from her call at which of the four bus stops Waldref was located.

Following the bystanders' later calls, Milwaukee Fire Department paramedics arrived at the scene at 5:52 p.m., according to a medical examiner report.

There, the paramedics tried to revive her but couldn't.

At the time, temperatures at the nearby Timmerman Airport were 2 degrees below zero, with wind chills of minus-20 to minus-21, according to the National Weather Service.

Waldref had been leaving her job as a receptionist at a home health care agency. She is survived by two daughters, ages 14 and 21. Waldref also had been the caregiver for her longtime partner, Kevin, who died about six months ago. A GoFundMe for the daughters has raised about $17,000.

Jolene Waldref, 49, of South Milwaukee died Jan. 15 after investigators say she slipped and fell on ice at a bus stop in Milwaukee. In subzero temperatures, she likely died of hypothermia, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner said.

More:South Milwaukee woman who slipped on ice and likely froze to death at bus stop mourned by friends

Head of city ambulance board rips Curtis Ambulance

Responding to the findings shared during the news conference, Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, said Johnson offered his condolences to the family and friends of Waldref.

"While he has not yet received a full briefing from the fire department, the Mayor appreciates that the Fire Department has been publicly forthcoming about what transpired," Fleming said in a statement. "If a review is needed in the emergency response protocols, the Mayor is confident the Fire Department and the Fire and Police Commission will undertake that effort."

To Borkowski, who for four years has been the chair of the city’s Ambulance Service Board, the findings and Baker's comments were frustrating. The board works with the two private ambulance companies that handle low-priority emergency calls for the city.

“I don’t believe it worked the way it was supposed to. It doesn’t seem like much of an effort was made," he said.

Borkowski made clear he generally has a lot of respect for Curtis Ambulance, Baker and other private ambulance companies that have worked in Milwaukee. He said they “do a great job” and have been “very, very solid assets of the city of Milwaukee.”

But he was also disappointed in Baker’s assessment that the “EMS system here worked as designed.”

“You read the quotes and they are insensitive. Jim knows better. Jim’s been doing this a long time,” Borkowski said, later adding, “He’s a higher-class individual than that.”

At one point during Tuesday’s conference, Baker said he did not think the incident reflected a change is needed in the way its ambulance workers respond to calls.

“We look at situations like this and we go, ‘Is a protocol change necessary?’ In this case, I don’t think there is,” Baker said. “It’s just unfortunate the woman had fallen down behind the bus stop, behind the snowbank, and she was not seen.”

But Borkowski feels differently. He said he would “bet my house that neither one of those private ambulance services will ever do that again.”

He said ambulance officials had never shared with him before that calls to bus stops come up empty with any frequency. He said he planned to speak with Milwaukee Fire Department officials about the situation.

“They dropped the ball, I’m sorry,” he said of Curtis. “No excuse.”