Lois Henry

Sunday, Jun 02 2013 12:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: One man's quest for answers stonewalled by Kern County

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    By John Hayes

    Jennings Blake Bennett, right, walks through the forest with a logger where his dad, Jennings Bill Bennett, died in a logging accident in the Tehachapi Mountains on Spetember 23, 2011. Photo courtsey of John Hayes.

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By Lois Henry

No one stonewalls like Kern County.

John Hayes knows that better than most.

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THE TIMELINE

Sept. 23, 2011, mountains south of Tehachapi.

9:45 a.m., Bill Bennett sustains massive head and spinal injuries after being hit by a tree.

9:59 a.m., Jess Witten, his boss, calls 911.

10:30 a.m., Kern County sheriff's helicopter Air 5 launches from Bakersfield.

10:43 a.m., Both Kern County Fire Department Capt. Jason Nava and Hall Ambulance Unit 375 with a paramedic and emergency medical technician (EMT) arrive at the nearest road.

Bennett is a quarter-mile in and must be reached by foot up a short hill, then across the mountain on a logging 'dozer line. Nava takes only a chainsaw with him, assuming the paramedics are right behind him with medical gear.

10:57 a.m., Air 5 locates Bennett.

11:03 a.m., Nava is on scene with Bennett.

11:06 a.m., Hall paramedics give up and are back in their ambulance after having refused a ride on a 'dozer and made no more than a nine-minute attempt at the hike, according to a county Emergency Medical Services report on the incident.

11:41 a.m., Bennett goes into cardiac arrest. Nava initiates CPR.

11:46 a.m., Nava asks Fire dispatch where Hall's paramedics are. Fire contacts Hall dispatch, which only then tells Fire the Hall paramedics have abandoned the hike and aren't coming.

11:53 a.m., Air 5 hoists Bennett out after numerous attempts to hold a hover long enough to lower a deputy and medical equipment.

Bennett is flown to Tehachapi airport where it is decided he no longer needs air transport to a hospital.

12:29 p.m., Bennett is pronounced dead.

Lois Henry hosts "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

He's been banging his head against the county's impenetrable masonry for the past two years trying to get answers and accountability for what he believes was a botched rescue attempt of his brother-in-law, Bill Bennett, in 2011.

Bennett, a logger, died on Sept. 23, 2011, after a tree fell on him while he was working with a crew in the mountains south of Tehachapi.

Bennett suffered grave injuries to his head, chest and spinal cord, which was severed or nearly severed in three places, according to the coroner. Though, according to reports by both Fire, Sheriff's and witnesses, Bennett was coherent and moving shortly after the accident. On the slim chance he could have survived his injuries, there's no doubt his life would have been drastically changed.

Hayes isn't arguing that Bennett would have survived had the rescue attempt gone well.

The retired Kern County battalion chief is arguing that the rescue attempt was jacked practically from start to finish and that the county needs to own up to those failings and fix them. Otherwise, the scenario will repeat itself and someone else will pay the price.

The county hasn't been exactly receptive to Hayes' questions and concerns.

For instance, Hayes has asked for a series of documents that should exist and should be publicly available and, in many cases, gotten bupkis.

He's asked for any administrative investigations by the Sheriff's Office and Fire Department and "after action reviews," which are required according to an agreement between Fire and Sheriff's.

No dice. County Counsel deemed any such reports, if they exist, "investigative" and unreleasable.

Hayes tried to clarify that the reports aren't investigative and have nothing to do with personnel. They're routine, he argued, and should be released. He got no reply.

He also wanted any documentation from the county's Emergency Medical Services Department and Hall Ambulance regarding a complaint filed against Hall by Hollie Bennett, Bill Bennett's widow.

County Counsel said no such documentation existed.

Hayes was stunned and asked a second time but got no reply.

He was shocked because EMS regulations require private ambulance companies to respond to such complaints within a certain time frame and for EMS to keep complaints in a database that is then tracked.

Hollie Bennett first filed her complaint in October 2011 after learning that a Hall Ambulance paramedic and emergency medical technician (EMT) refused to hike or even get a 'dozer ride to where her husband lay injured.

She received no response and filed another complaint in January of this year with no response from Hall. Both were copied to EMS and the Board of Supervisors.

Hall Ambulance told me it had no comment but did say the company had written to Hollie Bennett and "responded to her concerns."

The only letter she ever received from Hall was one that denied her request for the report written by the paramedic and EMT who refused to hike in to her husband.

Hall said it doesn't give out such reports, even though the company earlier had given her a report by Hall paramedics who assisted Bennett's transfer from Air 5 at the Tehachapi airport.

That's not a response to her complaint.

Hayes also asked for documentation about the use of the Sheriff's Office defibrillator on Bill Bennett during the rescue.

Doesn't exist, County Counsel said.

Again, Hayes was flabbergasted.

EMS regulations require that anytime a defibrillator is used, the chip it contains, which records patient information as well as audio of the first responders using the device, must be given to EMS within 72 hours as well as a report of the incident.

He clarified the regulations to County Counsel and asked for the information again, with no reply.

Hayes did have some success in his records search.

He got the video Air 5 records of all its rescue operations.

It shows Bennett being hoisted up in a rescue basket with a deputy leaning over him, doing chest compressions for a portion of the ride up.

Once Bennett's basket is alongside the helicopter and it is under way to Tehachapi, however, the deputy reaches out only occasionally with one arm to pat and sort of massage Bennett's chest.

At no time during that flight did Bennett receive any oxygen, a key component of CPR.

That didn't quite square with comments Sheriff Donny Youngblood made to me on a radio program broadcast Feb. 17, 2012, following my first article on the rescue.

Among other things, Youngblood repeatedly told me his deputy did CPR on Bennett for 30 minutes.

(Listen for yourself here: http://www.bakersfield.com/CalifornianRadio/x2055049065/Californian-Radio-Feb-17-2012. Youngblood calls in about halfway through.)

I wanted to ask Youngblood about those comments and what the video shows, but he referred any questions to County Counsel.

Neither the Fire Department nor EMS Director Ross Elliot would get back to me either and, in the past, both have directed me to County Counsel as well.

I suppose I would understand that if there were any threat of a lawsuit.

But there isn't and there won't be.

That's because a claim by Hollie Bennett was denied by the county back in April 2012. Once that happens, a person only has six months from the date of denial to sue. That's long since passed.

The Bennett family has no ability to sue for wrongful death.

Yet, county officials continue to hold up the "threat of litigation" shield in an apparent attempt to avoid talking about this rescue.

Another reporter from Los Angeles looking into this story said Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations said the case could morph into a civil rights violation, which has a two-year statute of limitations.

That's ridiculous, of course.

But it sure does make you wonder why the county is working so hard to avoid a simple give and take of how this rescue all went down.

And when I say the county is working hard, I mean overtime.

The Kern County Grand Jury tried looking at this rescue, but ultimately didn't have much to say other than it seems like Fire and Sheriff are working well together. Note exactly on point.

Of greater note, however, is that the grand jury says it was not allowed to interview Hall Ambulance personnel.

"The Grand Jury's authority to interview was questioned by the private company management of the responders," the report says of Hall's response to inquiries.

Whaaaat?

First of all, the grand jury has legal subpoena power, which gives it the authority to ask questions of just about anyone, anytime.

In fact, after the Sheriff's Office most recent in-custody death, the Bakersfield police chief noted there isn't much need for a citizen's review panel because such reviews could be done by the grand jury.

Second, Hall Ambulance is supposed to operate under strict guidelines established by EMS for the sake of public safety. Meaning, the public has an absolute right to know how Hall is operating.

But perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is Hayes has kept the Board of Supervisors abreast of all the issues over the past two years and not a peep.

Makes you wonder who's really in charge of county government.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com.

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