Hub City Institutions Offer Conflicting Versions of Halloween Fiasco

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—One week ago, county officials said, "The County OEM received a request from Rutgers Fire Department on Nov. 1 for use of the medical bus."

Rutgers' response to that statement was simple: "There is no Rutgers University Fire Department."

It's just one of several inconsistencies in the statements made by city and county instutions in the wake of a remarkably dangerous Halloween night in New Brunswick, a holiday that brought thousands of visitors to the city and left more than it's fair share of unsolved mysteries behind.

Nearly a month after a chaotic evening full of emergencies, the explanations provided by the city and county governments,  two different police departments, the state university, and its two major hospitals often don't match up.

One thing is clear:  The resources of the city's hospitals, ambulances, police agencies, and even its fleet of taxicabs, were stretched thin by an extraordinary number of alcohol-related incidents.

County officials first confirmed that the county's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had dispatched an ambulance bus to New Brunswick that night, at the request of Rutgers University.

But Rutgers disputes that story.  The school admits they asked to have the bus put "on standby" at about 1 am, but claims they never actually requested it be dispatched to New Brunswick.

"That ambulance bus ultimately was not needed and no individuals from Rutgers were transported in that vehicle," said a Rutgers spokesperson.

Of course, the county inists that "the bus was dispatched to the City," but provides no more details.

Emergency radio transmissions tell a third story.

Around 11:15pm, just as the evening was heating up, an official checks with "Med Central" to see how many "rigs," or ambulances, were on duty at the time.

The answer was alarming: just two for now, with a third coming in 15 minutes.

By midnight, as alcohol-related incidents piled up, someone was already requesting help: "Put out an urgent text alert for a fourth ambulance," said one official over the airwaves.

But it wasn't only the city's ambulances that would be overwhelmed.

Soon after, ambulances stopped taking patients to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, due to what the city government has called a "communication breakdown."

Officials who communicated over the emergency radio indicated that Robert Wood Johnson was a "no go" while St. Peter's only had three beds remaining and was working to expand its capacity by creating a "little drunk tank area."

Shortly before 1am, Rutgers called to request the ambulance bus, but the word came back that it wouldn't be able to make it to New Brunswick for over an hour.

According to officials on scene at the College Avenue Student Center, the ambulance bus was sorely needed there, where the number of intoxicated patients was growing in a "triage" area set up as part of a "casualty collection plan."

There, emergency management officials and first responders appeared to be implementing some of the same strategies they tested in a "Mass Casualty Drill" on October 20, 2012, just a few blocks away.

Middlesex County's ambulance bus was also missing in action that day.  Keyport EMS provided the ambulance bus, and emergency personnel told New Brunswick Today that Middlesex County's bus was in for repairs.

This time, the scene was the Rutgers Student Center, where a growing number of intoxicated individuals were triaged and waiting for transportation to area hospitals.

"We're going to institute the [Mass Casualty Incident] plan here," says someone on scene at the student center. "Currently, I have three yellow-tagged individuals, all [alcohol]-related."

After it became clear that ambulances were too busy to meet the need, plans went into motion to secure an ambulance bus.

By morning, nine different individuals had been transported to hospitals from the triage station set up at the College Avenue Student Center, university officials told New Brunswick Today.

Still, however, no explanation was given of how the nine students got to the student center, which normally closes at 1am, in the first place.

Thirty-one more intoxicated people were served by Rutgers first responders, with help from RWJUH, according to spokespersons for the two institutions.

A county official told New Brunswick Today that the the county's ambulance bus was requested in New Brunswick around 1am. But it's still not clear what happened next.

Shortly before 1am, a Rutgers dispatcher confirms, "They are calling the county to acquire the bus."

"Be advised, five confirmed [patients] inside the student center at this point," is the response.

However, according to emergency radio transmissions, on Halloween, the ambulance bus was parked in Sayreville, more than twenty minutes away, and the county predicted it would take over an hour to get it to New Brunswick.

"[Middlesex County OEM] saying an hour plus, at this time… They're getting a staff together," said one official at 1:27 am.

 "As per Middlesex County Sheriff's Department, the bus is twenty minutes out in Sayreville," says another voice over the airwaves at 1:46 am.

Around the time that the bus was allegedly requested, the demand for ambulances was so high that "Med Central" was "stacking" as many as ten calls at a time, according to the transmissions.

"We've got a number of stacked jobs… We've had one stacked for half an hour with patrol sitting on it at Mettler [Hall]," says one official.

In some cases, people waited 20 minutes or longer for Rutgers University ambulances, despite assistance from the Robert Wood Johnson fleet of ambulances throughout the night.

"Our records show that we assisted Rutgers by responding to 15 calls on campus," said Haigney, the RWJUH spokesperson. "Generally, our Mobile Health Services will assist Rutgers with calls on their campus during peak volume periods."

"The longest response time during the period you noted was 9 minutes," said Haigney. "The majority were between 1 and 7 minutes."

Both the County OEM Director John Ferguson and Rutgers OEM Director Steve Kellerman immediately refused to answer questions about the incident, deferring to their institution's press person.

"My management told me I'm not allowed to talk to you," said Ferguson.

"You're going to have to go through Media Relations," said Kellerman.

But, the city's Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Rawls was one of the few public officials who did not hesitate to speak to this reporter, returning multiple phone calls on the matter on November 3 and speaking to the issue at the November 19 City Council meeting.

"There was a breakdown in communication somewhere in the [Robert Wood Johnson] hospital," said Rawls, indicating for the first time that something did not go according to plan.

In addition to being the Hub City's largest hospital and a Level 1 Trauma Center, Robert Wood Johnson also runs the city's ambulances, or "Mobile Health Services," for the city.

According to emergency radio transmissions, ambulances were hard to come by, and dispatchers were under the impression RWJUH was not able to accept patients for at least some of the night.

"North Stelton [EMS] is going to be transporting two [intoxicated patients].  What hospital has available beds?" asked an official over the radio.

"Robert Wood's definitely a no-go," was the response.  "St. Peter's should have some beds left."

But RWJ insists they never reached capacity.

"These situations are fluid and you can’t isolate one piece of radio communication to make a definitive assessment," said hospital spokesperson Peter Haigney.  "The bottom line is that our hospital did not go on divert and we continued to accept and treat patients during that time."

"In this particular case, the system wasn't overwhelmed. And it's not something, on a weekend, as a Level 1 Trauma Center, that we haven't seen before," Haigney told NBToday.

Haigney also took issue with Rawls' claim there was a "communication breakdown," but confirmed that RUPD Chief William Scott called a meeting in the wake of the chaotic evening attended by Rawls and hospital staff, including its Director of Emergency Preparedness.

"I wasn’t at the meetings [Rawls] attended, but from the information I received, that was not the conclusion resulting from the discussion," said Haigney.

"Based on the information I received, it was a productive meeting to review the communications process among all agencies to ensure that the proper contacts are made and information is received from individuals with the appropriate decision-making authority.

Without explaining who exactly was responsible for the "breakdown in communication" that apparently caused some ambulances to divert to other hospitals, or how it was addressed, Rawls said that the issue had been put to bed.

"Somewhere there was a lapse of information from dispatch to somewhere else," said Rawls.  "We've taken care of the issue and assured that it won't happen again."

Rawls declined to say how the issue had been addressed or describe what it was: "I do have it, but I'm not going to divulge how it was addressed. But it was addressed."

Previously, city officials downplayed the incident and spent weeks deflecting, ignoring, and avoiding questions about it.

"I guess you would have to find out from EMS," City Council President Rebecca Escobar told this reporter just seconds before a follow-up question led to the Rawls revelation.

Once Rawls was given the floor, he did not hold back, squarely placing the blame on RWJUH.

"We've met on this, all the powers the be: the hospital, Rutgers, everbody," Rawls said. "There was other people from Robert Wood, the hospital, the higher-ups that also had no idea what was going on at the time."

Escobar countered, "But I think it's important to note that they met, that there was a challenge, and that it was addressed." 

Meanwhile, the city's other major hospital, St. Peter's University Hospital, was nearly just as overwhelmed, according to the radio transmissions. 

"St. Peter's advised us they only have three beds at this time," says one official.  "They're working on getting more in a little drunk tank area."

"We may have to start transporting to further hospitals."

For their part, St. Peter's University Hospital (SPUH) says they increased their capacity and met the need.

"Saint Peter’s had 18 Rutgers students admitted to our Emergency Department with alcohol-induced illness on that Saturday. Additional treatment space was opened to handle the influx," said SPUH spokesperson Phil Hartman.

The transmissions indicated that if St. Peter's had filled up, patients would have been taken to JFK Hospital in Edison.

As for Robert Wood Johnson, Haigney said it wasn't unusual to look to other hospitals during major incidents.

"Patients may be transported to different hospitals based on many factors, which include individual medical needs and patient preference," Haigney said.

"I think in any case when you have any incident like a mass casualty incident… you will look to all area hospitals to see what their capacity is and how they can handle it," Haigney said. "It's not abnormal."

It's taken the city and some of its institutions weeks to even begin to offer an explanation of the chaos first described in emergency radio transmissions, and later in a New Brunswick Today article that was among the most popular of all-time.

At a November 5 City Council meeting that was cut short, police officials had said that Halloween night was "extremely busy," but claimed there were no problems with ambulances or hospitals.

"We had extra police presence so everything actually worked out very well," said Captain Vincent Sabo.

"I know there were some issues that were brought up to the Council regarding… ambulances showing up on location," Sabo continued.

"I spoke to Sgt. Trigg, who actually ran the detail for me that night and the lieutenant who was working that night and there were no issues."

"Double-checked with the hospital administration–Actually Police Director [Anthony] Caputo did, earlier this week, and again nothing to that."

But the confusion over hospital availability was just one of many questionable situations that affected public safety that evening.

At first, Rutgers University also denied anything went wrong on Halloween night, and brushed New Brunswick Today's questions aside.

"As you know, the premise of the [NBToday] article has been debunked by Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and the reporting has been criticized by The Daily Targum 'for blowing things out of proportion for absolutely no reason,'" wrote Greg Trevor on November 10.

The Daily Targum has since removed its criticisms of our article from their website.

That newspaper did not otherwise cover the chaos on Halloween in New Brunswick, which included reports of a shooting, several assaults, burglaries, car crashes, and an overwhelming number of alcohol overdoses.

Spokespersons for Rutgers only began answering questions from this reporter after an email to President Robert Barchi.

"Rutgers University tries very hard to be responsive to responsible media inquiries," Trevor said.  "However, it is not our job to run down every rumor heard on a scanner, or to pass judgment on the decisions of institutions outside the university."

"The facts of that evening were that we responded to approximately 40 reports of intoxicated persons," said Rutgers spokesperson Greg Trevor.  "Not all of these individuals were affiliated with Rutgers and not all of them required transport to local hospitals."

And Rutgers is still refusing to answer critical questions about what happened that night.

"Can you just tell me a little about what happened on Halloween?" asked this reporter, after shaking hands with University President Robert Barchi following his appearance at a Town Hall meeting.

"No," Barchi replied, before being whisked away by his handlers.  "I don't have time to answer any questions."

Rutgers officials have not addressed the comments of Rawls, or acknowledged if they were involved in meetings about the chaotic night in New Brunswick.

"Discussions with our public safety partners occur regularly. We do not discuss the details of those conversations," said a university spokesperson.

Also unanswered are questions about the university's new system for alerting the campus community to crimes went unused for most of the incidents.

Under pressure, Rutgers expanded the alert system in March to include crimes that would not previously garner a notification, but it's still not clear what standards are used to determine what constitutes a "serious crime."

New Brunswick Today asked about five different incidents in the Fifth and Sixth Wards that did not garner crime alerts, hoping for an explanation of why none of them did:

  • reported robbery and assault near ABP on College Avenue,
  • a reported home burglary on Delafield Street,
  • reports of men breaking into cars on Hamilton Street,
  • two reports of unconscious men, possibly victims of assault, one on Robinson Street and the other on Easton Avenue

"You may recall that earlier this year, the university expanded the area around campus beyond that required under the Clery Act for issuing crime alerts.  That off-campus area now includes anywhere in the 5th and 6th wards of New Brunswick," said Trevor, not answering the questions.

"In addition, off-campus alerts are issued for serious incidents against Rutgers students, faculty and staff in other parts of the city and areas surrounding the campuses when the university is made aware of such incidents."

Previously, the university admitted there was a September 5 assault that went without a crime alert, despite the suspects remaining at-large.  Officials said no crime alert was issued because the incident was ruled a "simple assault" by city police.

 

Charlie is a community organizer, a Rutgers journalism graduate, and a 2018 independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.

He can be reached at (732) 993-9697 or [email protected]