When a bullet pierced Sterling Everidge’s neck at a house party in September 2014, paralyzing him, a New Orleans EMS unit rolled up seven minutes after the 911 call, records show.
But no paramedics hustled to the door with a gurney and life-saving gear. Instead, as Everidge, who is deaf, lay bleeding inside the house on Annette Street, the crew waited in the ambulance for 10 minutes.
To his wife, Rebecca Everidge, it felt like an eternity.
“The ambulance is parked on the corner, but they don’t want to come in. I’m like, ‘Why they don’t want to come in?’ Because they needed the OK,” she said.
“They sat there for about 15 to 20 minutes before they came in to my husband, to see about my husband,” she said. “I don’t know what to think. All I see is beaucoup blood leaking out in front of him.”
The paramedics were following a standard practice of waiting for police to secure a potentially violent scene and issue a “Code 4” — all clear — before they rush in to provide critical medical care.
The incident illustrates a potentially fatal consequence of a sharp rise in New Orleans Police Department response times since 2010.
A recent New Orleans Advocate/WWL-TV analysis of nearly 3 million 911 call records revealed that officers are taking more than three times longer on average than they did five years ago to respond to calls for service. For the most urgent, “Priority 2” calls, they’re taking twice as long.
The average response time for those urgent calls, including shootings like the one on Annette Street, has risen to nearly 20 minutes, up from less than 10 minutes five years ago.
Everidge’s account, along with those of current and former ambulance crew members and limited EMS call data provided by the city, suggest that the rise in police response times means paramedics are being left idling near crime scenes more often than they once were.
“If you go in without a ‘Code 4’ from NOPD, you’re basically taking your life into your own hands if you don’t wait for police to secure the scene,” said Dan Flynn, a New Orleans EMS paramedic who is featured on the reality TV show “Nightwatch” on A&E.
An episode of the show titled “Officer Down” showed Flynn and another paramedic waiting on police at one of three violent scenes that night.
Neither New Orleans EMS nor the Police Department said they could provide data on how often, or for how long, emergency medical crews wait for police to reach a scene.
The city refused to release EMS data for large periods of time that would have allowed a clear comparison of police calls for service and EMS responses. Officials said the database storing that information could not export the raw data without violating patient privacy laws, which meant any requests for information on responses required an EMS employee to fill out a spreadsheet manually. As a result, city officials rejected requests they deemed too laborious.
The city did release some data on EMS responses to shootings for a few months selected by The New Orleans Advocate. But in many of those call records, the time when paramedics first made contact with the patient — a possible indicator of how long it took for police to secure the scene — was missing.
A comparison of the limited EMS data on shootings and NOPD emergency call data for fatal and nonfatal shootings suggests, however, that ambulances tend to beat patrol cars to shooting scenes by a significant margin.
In June 2010, the data show, the average NOPD response time to a shooting was just below six minutes, while EMS took an average of 91 seconds longer.
But by March 2013, amid a rise in NOPD response times, the average time for EMS to arrive on a shooting scene was nearly five minutes quicker than police. It remained faster by an average of about two minutes and 20 seconds in March 2014, the most recent month for which data were available.
“When we’re talking life-or-death situations, seconds do matter,” said Arthur Lewis, the Louisiana coordinator for trauma standards training, called pre-hospital trauma life support.
“In most situations, the answer (to whether a delay would be life-threatening) would probably be no. But there would be situations where, for example, somebody has a really bad bleed, so seconds are of the essence.”
In Everidge’s case, New Orleans police didn’t arrive until 35 minutes after the first call to 911.
Long before then, the ambulance crew had dispensed with protocol and entered the house anyway, records show.
By then, police say, the alleged assailants had moved on to Gene’s Po-Boys on Elysian Fields Avenue, where they allegedly opened fire on police Officer Jonathan Smith, shooting him three times.
Police soon arrested two of the men. Smith shot and killed the third.
“One bullet messed up his whole life,” said Rebecca Everidge of her husband, who lay bleeding on the floor for at least 17 minutes before help arrived.
The night of the shooting was the couple’s first night out in months, she said, following the birth of their fifth child — a fifth boy.
They went to a birthday party for Sterling’s sister. The house was filled with people. Loud music played and lots of people talked, but Sterling couldn’t hear any of it. He was born deaf.
After hanging out for a few hours, the couple decided to make their way home. On their way out the door, a man shoved his way back into the party, Rebecca Everidge said.
“A dude ran back in and was like, ‘Move out the way! … They got a gun! Move! Move! They got a gun,’ ” she said.
Rebecca said everybody dropped, but when they all got up, Sterling didn’t. He had fallen headfirst onto the hard floor.
“I’m like, ‘You shot?’ I’m signing to him. I’m like, ‘You shot? You shot?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘Where? In the arm? In the chest?’ He was like, ‘In the neck,’ ” Rebecca said.
Emergency dispatchers got the 911 call at 1:37 a.m.
New Orleans EMS got there at 1:44 a.m., then waited around the corner. Their crew ended up going in at 1:54 a.m., 18 minutes before police arrived.
Had they waited on the official “Code 4” signal from police, declaring the scene secure at 2:15 a.m., Sterling Everidge would have been waiting 38 minutes for help.
When asked if he remembers that night — the party, the shooting, the pain, the wait — he mouths one word: “Everything.”
When his wife asks him about the pain and rubs his chest at the cruel line where he starts to lose feeling, Sterling winces.
Because he’s paralyzed, sign language is almost impossible for him now. Almost.
“He mouths the words and he signs sometimes. He can move his left arm so good to where I can understand what he’s saying,” Rebecca said.
Police eventually interviewed Rebecca Everidge at the hospital, leading police to conclude the gunmen were the same ones who opened fire on the officer.
“It’s about 75 percent of the time we show up before (police) do,” said Eric Stapleton, a former medic with New Orleans EMS.
Stapleton, who left EMS last month after six years, said he recalls frequently waiting for police — or not waiting.
He said one domestic violence call in particular stands out: an incident a few years ago at an apartment complex on Chef Menteur Highway where his crew waited for police for a time, then, frustrated, finally went in to find a woman who “had been stabbed a bunch of times.”
The ambulance drove off with the victim before police arrived, he said. “I don’t know if they ever showed up.”
New Orleans police declined an interview request about the department’s Code 4 times. Instead, a spokesman pointed to changes that NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison has made to improve response times.
Among the changes: taking reports of minor crimes over the phone and reassigning traffic officers to free up district patrol cops to focus on more serious calls.
Those and other stopgap measures helped reduce police response times across the board in November, compared with the first 10 months of the year, according to NOPD figures.
Although they generally arrive before police, EMS also has drawn scrutiny for lapses in response times.
New Orleans EMS officials declined interview requests. The agency instead offered annual data on how often they arrive at a scene within 12 minutes — a gauge for what the industry calls response time compliance.
In 2010, the agency met that nationally recognized benchmark 77 percent of the time. Over the past five years, that percentage has moved up and down. Last year it climbed to 80 percent, according to EMS.
Most ambulance providers are expected to get to trauma scenes in that 12-minute window 90 percent of the time. Private ambulance providers in Memphis and San Diego have been fined for response times that were faster than those clocked by New Orleans EMS in recent years.
That calculation for New Orleans EMS doesn’t include incidents where no one is taken by ambulance to the hospital — if, for instance, a shooting victim is driven there instead of waiting for help.
Of the 393 gunshot wound victims admitted this year to University Medical Center or Interim LSU Hospital as of Wednesday, about one in eight arrived in private vehicles, according to a spokesperson. Another 53 gunshot wound victims came from another hospital or clinic. Comparative figures for previous years were unavailable.
Rebecca Everidge said the family will never know if her husband’s injuries would be less severe if help had arrived sooner. They’re thankful for the help he got, and they know he’s lucky to be alive, she said.
Because money’s tight, Sterling stopped going to therapy for a while, depending instead on his wife to help him stretch and gain strength.
“He improves every day, wiggle toes, wiggle fingers,” Rebecca said.
The family prays for progress, so that one day, their five sons can see their father the way he was, the way he wants to be remembered.
They hope time will now work on their side.
-Advocate staff writers John Simerman and Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.