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‘You’re not going to die:’ Dispatcher accused of mishandling call with drowning woman cleared

Debbie Stevens

Debbie Stevens

FORT SMITH, Ark. — A former Arkansas 911 dispatcher accused of mishandling a call with a drowning woman was cleared of wrongdoing following an internal investigation.

The investigation was conducted by the Fort Smith Police Department and Fort Smith Fire Department.

Reports stated that though operator Donna Reneau may have violated policy by being rude to Debbie Stevens at times, she had done nothing that would have warranted her termination had she still been employed with the Fort Smith Police Department.

Stevens died after her car was swept away by flash flooding on Kinkead Avenue while delivering papers on Aug. 24. Stevens called 911 before her death, and Reneau answered her call.

Stevens was the 15th call due to vehicles in floodwaters that morning, and 19 other calls were made following hers.

A report from the night stated that the 911 center was staffed with four operators and was overwhelmed with calls during the flash flooding and the situation was described as “chaotic, at best.”

At the beginning of the call, Reneau was not able to establish Stevens’ location. Reneau put in a police call for Stevens with the call type “stalled vehicle” but changed the priority from the standard level of six to a higher priority of four. Records indicated there were no officers available at the time.

Debra Stevens was working her normal newspaper delivery route in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when rising floodwaters began to overtake her SUV.

The final, desperate 911 call of the 47-year-old woman who delivered the Southwest Times Record to front doors came at 4:38 on the morning of August 24. It was a panicked, 22-minute plea for help with a dispatcher that the Fort Smith Police Department admitted sounded “calloused and uncaring at times.”

Stevens’ 911 call

“I have an emergency — a severe emergency,” Stevens told the female dispatcher. “I can’t get out, and I’m scared to death, ma’am. Can you please help me?”

A terrified Stevens told the dispatcher over and over that she was going to die in the rapidly rising water. She wept and asked when help would arrive. She didn’t know how to swim, she said. She had trouble describing her location. She didn’t want to die, she said.

“You’re not going to die,” the dispatcher said in audio released by police this week. “I don’t know why you’re freaking out … You freaking out is doing nothing but losing your oxygen in there. So, calm down.”

Stevens said water was pouring into her car. It would soon ruin her new phone.

“Do you really care about your brand new phone?” the dispatcher asked. “You’re over there crying for your life. Who cares about your phone?”

Dispatcher scolds Stevens for driving into water

Stevens said she didn’t see the water on the road. She came up on it suddenly. The water was getting as high as her chest, she said. She could see people in the distance looking at her. They’re probably laughing, she said.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry,” Stevens cried.

Stevens needed to vomit, she said at one point.

“Well, you’re in water, you can throw up,” the dispatcher said. “It’s not going to matter.”

Crying uncontrollably, Stevens asked the woman on the line to pray with her.

“You go ahead and start off the prayer,” the 911 operator said.

“Please help and get me out of this water, dear Father,” Stevens said.

Again, she apologized. She didn’t mean to rude. But she was so afraid.

“This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water,” the dispatcher told her.

Stevens insisted she didn’t see the floodwaters. She’d worked her paper route for 21 years and never experienced anything like this.

“I don’t know how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it. The water just didn’t appear.”

‘You’re going to have to shut up,’ dispatcher says

About 15 minutes into the recording, the dispatcher is heard taking other calls.

Stevens wept on the line. The dispatcher tried to describe to firefighters the stranded woman’s location.

“I’m on the phone with her,” she said. “She’s freaking out.”

Now, 18 minutes into the call, the dispatcher was asking a firefighter whether he could see Stevens’ SUV. “Negative,” he said. There was confusion about her location.

The stranded motorist cried uncontrollably.

“Miss Debbie, you’re going to have to shut up,” the dispatcher said. “Can you honk your horn?”

“My horn is dead,” Stevens said. “Everything is dead.”

Stevens’ body was found 58 minutes after the call

The water was rising above the door of her SUV, Stevens said. “Oh, Lord help me,” she cried. Rescuers were trying to find her, the operator said.

“Oh my god, my car is starting to move,” Stevens cried.

“OK, listen to me, I know,” the dispatcher said. “I’m trying to get you help… I know you’re scared. Just hold on for me because I’ve got to take other calls.”

Stevens screamed. She said couldn’t breathe.

“I’m on the phone with her right now,” the dispatcher said to a rescuer. “She is legit freaking out.”

“I’m going to die!” Stevens said.

“Miss Debbie, you’re breathing just fine because you are screaming at me. So, calm down. I know you’re scared. Hold on for me.”

Stevens is not heard again.

“Miss Debbie? Miss Debbie?” the dispatcher said. “Oh my God. She sounds like she’s under water now.”

The call ended at 5 a.m.

Rescuers reached Stevens’ SUV some 58 minutes later. They tried unsuccessfully to revive her.

Dispatcher was working her final shift that day

Fort Smith City Director Neal Martin told the Southwest Times Record, which Stevens delivered, that she was a longtime family friend who taught preschool ministry at East Side Baptist Church. She also worked on his campaign.

Stevens was “a model of being a servant, doing what God called you to do, and serving your community and friends,” Martin said.

“If people were willing to give of themselves like she did, I think our city, our state and our country would be a lot better,” he told the newspaper.

Fort Smith police said in a statement that the recording of the call was released “with great reluctance” after requests from the media.

“The recording contains the audio of a dying person’s last moments as well as the interaction between her and the 911 operator,” the statement said. “And while the operator’s response to this extremely tense and dynamic event sounds calloused and uncaring at times, sincere efforts were being made to locate and save Mrs. Stevens.”

Stevens’ first call during the emergency was to her mother-in-law, police said. She then dialed 911 from her cell phone.

Fire and police units were inundated with calls from people stranded in floodwaters, the statement said. Stevens’ difficulty in describing her location and flooding limited the ability to reach her, the statement said.

“I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s family and friends,” interim Police Chief Danny Baker said in a statement. “All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome. For every one of us, saving lives is at the very core of who we are and why we do what we do. When we are unsuccessful, it hurts.”

Police spokesman Aric Mitchell said the 911 operator had submitted her two weeks’ notice on Aug. 9. She happened to be working her last shift the morning of the tragedy.

“The incident will certainly lead to us looking at policies within our existing Communications Unit but we have not completed a review at this time to make specific determinations,” Mitchell said.

The 911 operator may not have “realized or understood the severity of the situation,” but she appeared to have acted within department guidelines, Baker told CNN affiliate KHBS.

“She did nothing criminally wrong,” he said. “I’m not even going to go so far as to she violated policy.”

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