‘She's sort of breathing’: What linguistic factors determine call-taker recognition of agonal breathing in emergency calls for cardiac arrest?

Marine Riou, Stephen Ball, Teresa A. Williams, Austin Whiteside, Peter Cameron, Daniel M. Fatovich, Gavin D. Perkins, Karen Smith, Janet Bray, Madoka Inoue, Kay L. O'Halloran, Paul Bailey, Deon Brink, Judith Finn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Background In emergency ambulance calls, agonal breathing remains a barrier to the recognition of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA), initiation of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and rapid dispatch. We aimed to explore whether the language used by callers to describe breathing had an impact on call-taker recognition of agonal breathing and hence cardiac arrest. Methods We analysed 176 calls of paramedic-confirmed OHCA, stratified by recognition of OHCA (89 cases recognised, 87 cases not recognised). We investigated the linguistic features of callers’ response to the question “is s/he breathing?” and examined the impact on subsequent coding by call-takers. Results Among all cases (recognised and non-recognised), 64% (113/176) of callers said that the patients were breathing (yes-answers). We identified two categories of yes-answers: 56% (63/113) were plain answers, confirming that the patient was breathing (“he's breathing”); and 44% (50/113) were qualified answers, containing additional information (“yes but gasping”). Qualified yes-answers were suggestive of agonal breathing. Yet these answers were often not pursued and most (32/50) of these calls were not recognised as OHCA at dispatch. Conclusion There is potential for improved recognition of agonal breathing if call-takers are trained to be alert to any qualification following a confirmation that the patient is breathing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)92-98
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • Agonal breathing
  • Communication
  • Conversation analysis
  • Dispatch
  • Emergency calls
  • Emergency medical services
  • Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest
  • Recognition

Cite this