In a horrific recording, a 911 dispatcher dismisses the cries of panic by Debbie Stevens, 47, (above) as her car fills with water in Fort Smith Arkansas. At one point, the dispatcher, Donna Reneau, says “I don’t know why you are freaking out.” Stevens explained that she was afraid of dying and kept apologizing. She later drowned in the car waiting for rescue.
Stevens was delivering newspapers when she was hit by floodwaters. The call to 911 showed a panicked driver and a less than sympathetic dispatcher, though Reneau (left) may have believed that this was just a case of a trapped car rather than a car filling with water.
Stevens: “Please help me. I don’t wanna die.”
Dispatcher: “You’re not going to die – hold on for a minute.”
Stevens: “Well I need um, I’m scared. I’m sorry.”
Dispatcher: “I understand that you’re scared but there’s nothing I can do sitting in a chair so you’re going to have to hold on and I’m going to send you somebody, OK?”
Stevens was on the phone with 911 for about 24 minutes”
Dispatcher: “You’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out. It’s OK. I know the water level is high.”
Stevens: “I’m scared. I’m sorry.”
Dispatcher: “I understand that but you freaking out – doing nothing but losing your oxygen up in there so calm down.”
Stevens: “When are they going to be here?”
Dispatcher: “As soon as they get there.”
In one of the most chilling portions of the tape, the dispatcher chastises Stevens:
Stevens: “I’m scared. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before.”
Dispatcher: “This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water.”
Stevens: “Couldn’t see it ma’am. I’m sorry or I wouldn’t have.”
Dispatcher: “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it, so.”
Although Police and firefighters arrived about 12 minutes after Stevens’ call, it took more than an hour for them to reach and extract her. By that time, she was dead.
Assuming that there was no negligence in the rescue at the scene, this case could present a question of liability over the dispatcher’s role under a claim of the infliction of emotional distress. It would however not make for a strong such case. It appears that the dispatcher did get the rescuers to the scene and that they arrived relatively quickly. The words of the dispatcher, while shocking, was tragically not the cause of the greater distress. That was the water.
The dispatcher has resigned.
Danny Baker, the interim police chief, correctly said that the dispatcher “did nothing criminally wrong.” However, he then curiously added “I’m not even going to go so far as saying she violated policy.” I would hope lecturing and mocking a woman in distress would violate some policy somewhere in the Fort Smith police department.