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Atlanta airport reverses course, hiring Emergency Medical Dispatchers after 11Alive investigation

After insisting an EMD program would be 'too challenging,' airport officials are planning to train all 911 dispatchers to handle medical calls.

COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is now hiring Emergency Medical Dispatchers and EMD supervisors, after 11Alive's investigative team, The Reveal, found the airport banned its 911 operators from giving CPR or other medical instructions over the phone.

The airport has not publicly announced the change, but a current job posting on the city’s hiring website lists a position for Airport Operations Center Emergency Medical (EMD) Supervisor.

Internal emails and other documents obtained by The Reveal, through a Georgia Open Records Act request, show the airport received vendor quotes to start a full EMD program two days after we posted our first story on the death of Thomas Lawson, who suffered an apparent heart attack in the South Economy Parking lot within sight of the domestic terminal.

The dispatcher who kept Lawson’s wife calm on the phone for more than seventeen minutes had been Fulton County’s Emergency Medical Dispatch manager until just six months before answering that call as an airport dispatcher. She had been trained to give CPR instructions over the phone, but airport policy — and the lack of EMD protocols at the airport — prevented her from telling Ruth Lawson how to save her husband’s life.

RELATED: He died in an Atlanta airport parking lot. 22 minutes after 911 call, first responders started CPR

Credit: WXIA

The airport’s 911 director, Augustus Hudson, told The Reveal in a May 3 interview that “right now, EMD is not the recommendation” of the airport’s emergency medical services. He also wrote in an internal email that the airport did not have such a program because, “EMD and T-CPR are not required state certification.”

Atlanta Fire & Rescue provides EMS and ambulance services at the airport, which is run by the city’s Department of Aviation. Chief Christopher Collins, the airport’s EMS director, told The Reveal during a May 3 interview that, in the airport environment, “it’s just a challenge” to provide pre-arrival instructions like CPR over the phone, even though “pre-arrival instructions always do help save lives.”

Chief Collins said there had been 45 cardiac arrest incidents at the airport since 2019, with seven people surviving, suggesting that at least 38 people had died at the airport in a little more than two years.

RELATED: One airport with seven 911 jurisdictions | Here's why it matters

At the same time the airport officials were doubling down on their refusal to offer EMD, internal emails show they were researching Telephone CPR and Emergency Medical Dispatch programs. That research started immediately after we filed a records request on April 15 asking for the number of EMDs at the airport’s 911 center.

The answer was zero.

In their analysis after our investigation was published, airport officials acknowledged that several surrounding 911 centers and other major airports use Emergency Medical Dispatch, including Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson has received quotes from two vendors. The airport has already made the decision to go with Priority Dispatch at an initial cost of $84,047 to train 23 airport 911 employees and provide EMD software for seven call-taking computers, according to a June 4 internal memo we obtained through open records.

The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country. 

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