FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Handed a toddler who was unresponsive and turning blue, Capt. James Kelley of the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department had a choice to make: wait perhaps 10 or 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive or rush the child to the hospital in a fire truck in violation of policy.
He broke the rule. And he and the truck's driver were placed on administrative leave, which was lifted Monday after the child's father hailed the firefighters as heroes for possibly saving his daughter's life.
Brian Nunamaker is not alone in his appreciation for the actions of Kelley and Sgt. Virgil Bloom. Kelley said he received messages of support from across the country, and even from the United Kingdom, since the suspensions were first reported over the weekend. Also, a Facebook page advocating their reinstatement had received more than 7,600 "likes" by Monday evening.
"The outpouring from the public has been tremendous," Kelley said in a telephone interview.
Kelley said he and Bloom responded Feb. 27 to a 911 call from Nunamaker, who said his 18-month-old daughter Lena was having a seizure in his car. Kelley said he and Bloom arrived within three minutes, and Nunamaker handed the child to him. Kelley checked on the whereabouts of the ambulance and received information that was somewhat unclear, but indicated that it might be 10 or 15 minutes away.
He knew using a fire truck to transport someone in medical need was against the rules but decided this emergency warranted an exception. Kelley is also a District of Columbia firefighter, and he had made the same decision there in the past without repercussions.
Kelley put Lena in a rear-facing seat toward the back of the truck, strapped her in with a seat belt, piled coats around her and hooked her up to oxygen. Then away they went, arriving at the hospital 13 minutes later — the toddler's color restored, but her left side still motionless.
Had he waited for the ambulance, Kelley said, "the time would have probably doubled."
Soon afterward, Kelley and Bloom were suspended by the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department, which oversees the volunteers. Nunamaker was appalled.
"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," he told media outlets Saturday. "In our eyes, they are heroes."
Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department Chief Mark Lockhart said Monday that the administrative leave was not the same as a suspension, which is punitive. He said Kelley and Bloom were simply not allowed to respond to calls during an internal review of the "highly unusual" use of a fire truck to transport a patient.
The investigation determined that an ambulance was only 1.7 miles away when Kelley and Bloom took off for the hospital, Lockhart said. He also said the proper medical protocol "was not followed to the letter."
He declined to say whether the firefighters did the right thing under the circumstances.
"It's kind of an unfair question because I wasn't there, didn't see the child or touch the child or care for the child," the chief said.
The firefighter who did care for the child said she is doing well, and he has no regrets about breaking the rule.
"Ten out of 10 times, I'd do it again," Kelley said.