Volunteer firefighter Capt. James Kelley stood on the side of the highway in Stafford County, cradling the limp, blue body of an 18-month-old girl whose father had called 911 minutes earlier to report she was having a seizure in the car.
Kelley, who had been first to arrive on the scene, had a decision to make: Wait an unknown amount of time for medics? Or load the unresponsive toddler into the back of the fire truck and take her to the hospital himself?
Kelley’s choice — to transport the girl in the backseat of the fire truck— has won him the gratitude of the toddler’s family and the praise of colleagues, but has also led Stafford County officials to suspend him and another volunteer firefighter in Fredericksburg.
Kelley, a D.C. firefighter who also spends his free time as a member of the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department in Fredericksburg, said he was aware of rules that prohibit using a fire truck to transport someone in medical need, but decided to disregard them in this case.
“I feel comfortable with the decision,” Kelley said Sunday.
So does the chief of the volunteer firefighting unit in Falmouth.
“This is one of those situations where actions outweigh policy,” Chief Christopher Smith said.
But Stafford County officials say they are reviewing the incident as a “potential regulatory compliance issue,” while Kelley and fellow volunteer firefighter Sgt. Virgil Bloom remain suspended. A spokesman declined to comment Sunday on the specifics.
The toddler, Lena, is in good health, according to her father, David Nunamaker, who said Kelley and Bloom “simply had the best interests of our daughter’s care in mind.”
He was surprised, he said, to read news of the suspensions this weekend, prompting him to issue a lengthy statement.
“My wife and I feel terrible for the fallout that has happened to these two gentlemen,” he said. “The actions of these men represent a dedication to their mission, and a deep concern of doing what is best for the people they are serving. In our eyes they are heroes.”
Kelley, a 35-year-old father of a teenager, on Sunday provided a detailed account of what led to his quick decision last Saturday, saying there were communication breakdowns that led to uncertainty about when an ambulance would arrive.
The call came in just after 11 a.m. on Feb. 27 and Kelley and Bloom jumped in the fire engine. On the way, Kelley said he asked the closest responding ambulance to report its exact location. “Southbound on Route 1,” the medic replied. That description was vague, Kelley said.
He knew that the same ambulance had been on a previous call in the northern part of the county, he said, meaning it could be as far as eight or nine miles away. Kelley and Bloom were at the scene in three minutes.
He saw David Nunamaker standing on the shoulder of the road next to his car. He was panicking, Kelley said. “She changed colors,” he told Kelley as he approached. Nunamaker pushed Lena into Kelley’s arms. She was unresponsive.
“She had nothing going on really,” Kelley said. Her head was tilted back over one of Kelley’s arms while her legs dangled lifelessly over his other arm.
Nunamaker, of Fredericksburg, told Kelley that they had been driving — running errands, he would later clarify — when Lena began twitching, vomiting and then seizing up. Nunamaker’s older daughter was also in the car at the time.
Kelley considered the medics’ potential response time, given the unclear location description. He also considered that it would take him three minutes to get to the closest hospital.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said.
He put Lena in a row of rear-facing bucket seats in the rear of the truck, bunching piles of coats on either side of her and strapping a seat belt around her. He put an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose. He stood next to her as the truck rumbled away, whispering “come on, baby, come on, Lena,” he said.
During the short ride, he said, her color came back and her right eye began to focus on him. But the left side of her face and body was still motionless.
On the way, an ambulance radioed the fire truck asking to meet it so it could transfer Lena to the ambulance. But the proposed meeting spot would have taken the fire truck away from the hospital, Kelley said, so he declined to stop.
Nunamaker said in a statement that he arrived at the hospital a few minutes after the fire truck.
“When I arrived, my daughter was being treated in the emergency room,” he said. “She was having another seizure.”
Kelley said that the left side of Lena’s body was paralyzed for five hours before she returned to normal. He said that Nunamaker later told him that doctors had determined the seizure was due to a fever. Nunamaker said neurologists at the hospital told him that response times are “extremely important” when reacting to seizures.
Lena was at home Sunday, “doing well” and “acting like nothing ever happened,” Nunamaker said.