Ignored AIDS Call Sparks a Furor

Times Staff Writer

Sonoma County officials are threatening to cut off funding to a volunteer fire brigade that apparently refused to respond to a medical emergency because the victim was an infant with AIDS.

In the Dec. 21 incident, members of the Starcross religious community in Annapolis placed a 911 emergency call after a 1-year-old with AIDS under the community’s care developed breathing trouble. The countywide emergency system then contacted, as a matter of routine, the nearby Annapolis volunteer fire brigade, which failed to respond.

The emergency dispatcher then contacted the volunteer fire department at Sea Ranch, located on the coast seven miles west of Annapolis, which did respond, bringing oxygen to the struggling infant. The infant was left without medical care for perhaps an additional 20 minutes.

The towns are located in a remote corner of Sonoma County about 100 miles north of San Francisco.


The baby died two days later, although Starcross community member Brother Tolbert McCarroll said that the delay caused by the failure of the Annapolis fire brigade to respond “in no way contributed” to the death. McCarroll added, however, that a faster response “would have made him a little more comfortable for a short time.”

County Fire Services Director Mike Cahill said that his office began investigating the incident the next day. He said that brigade Chief Robby Thyarks, 19, told him last week that the brigade policy was not to respond to emergencies involving AIDS patients.

But Joe Miller, president of the Annapolis Fire District Board, told reporters that the brigade had no policy on emergencies at Starcross, a 120-acre farm known for its efforts to care for babies dying of AIDS. At the time of the incident, there were three AIDS patients there.

Miller said, “The incident wasn’t handled very well.” He added that only two of the brigade’s volunteers had refused to respond because the infant was infected with AIDS.


County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, whose district includes Annapolis, said: “We let the fire company know that they cannot pick and choose as to who they will respond. We need a change in their policy as a condition of continuing to receive county money.”

Carpenter said that technically, volunteer fire brigades are independent organizations. However, the county provides insurance, training and equipment, including a fire truck, to the Annapolis brigade.

Although 14 names appear on the brigade roster, only six or eight members are believed to be active, making it one of the smallest and most remote fire units in the county, Carpenter said.

Carpenter attributed the problems within the brigade to “misconceptions and fear.”


McCarroll said that Starcross is a lay Catholic community with three members that was founded 12 years ago. Relations with the other citizens of Annapolis have been chilly since Starcross began caring for AIDS-infected babies in January of 1987, he said.

Nevertheless, he was surprised when the fire brigade refused to respond to an emergency call at Starcross.

“I had helped set up that fire department,” McCarroll said. Another member of the Starcross community had served with the brigade as a volunteer, he added.