FORT SMITH, Ark. - An Arkansas 911 dispatcher is drawing criticism for how she scolded a caller, even telling her to "shut up," in the minutes before she drowned.
Debra Stevens, 47, called 911 at 4:38 a.m. on Aug. 24 as her SUV was swept away in flood waters, according to a statement from the Fort Smith, Arkansas Police Department. Stevens was on the job delivering newspapers at the time.
Stevens' call was answered by then-dispatcher Donna Reneau, who was working her last shift as a dispatcher after having submitted her resignation, KARK-TV reported.
Police released the recording of the 22-minute phone call this week with "great reluctance," the police statement said.
"I have an emergency -- a severe emergency," Stevens can be heard telling Reneau. "I can't get out, and I'm scared to death, ma'am. Can you please help me?"
Stevens told Reneau several times that she was going to die as the water rapidly rose, CNN reported. She told Reneau she couldn't swim.
Reneau dispatched fire and police units to Stevens, according to the statement from police. However, it's Reneau's comments to Stevens that have drawn public outrage.
"You're not going to die," Reneau said. "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 continued to say she was scared, and began crying. At one point she started to pray.
"This will teach you next time don't drive in the water," Reneau said.
Stevens replied that she didn't see the water.
"I don't know how you didn't see it. You had to go right over it. The water just didn't appear," Reneau said
About 15 minutes into the call, Reneau began answering other calls while keeping Stevens on the line. Stevens began crying again.
"Miss Debbie, you're going to have to shut up," Reneau said.
At some point, Stevens stops talking.
"Oh my God. She sounds like she's under water now," Reneau said.
The call ended at 5 a.m. Rescue workers found Stevens' SUV 58 minutes later, but it was too late -- Stevens had died, CNN reported.
Reneau's handling of the call, and her treatment of Stevens, has drawn widespread criticism. Members of the public have inundated the Fort Smith Police Department's Facebook page with comments on the incident.
"My heart breaks that this terrified human beings (sic) last moments were spent being treated like her life had no value," one commenter wrote. "She needed comforting and kindness and was shown callousness and anger."
"What a horrible way for this lady to die! I hope I never find myself in Ft Smith needing help from this police dept," another person wrote.
Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker told The Southwest Times Record that he can "completely understand" the public's concern over the call. He said disciplinary action would have been taken against her if she was still employed as a dispatcher, but said she wouldn't have been fired, and that there wasn't anything in the call that would warrant a criminal investigation.
Police have launched an internal investigation into the handling of the incident, Baker said.
“Obviously, we can’t investigate someone who no longer works here. However, (we’ve launched) an investigation into our responses, our policies, our dispatch center. I’ve been in communication with the fire chief, and we’re looking at how we can enhance our training for our dispatchers,” he said.
Baker offered his condolences at a Thursday press conference.
“I don’t think, other than family and friends, that there’s anybody more heartbroken over the outcome of this incident than me, the members of the Police Department, the Fire Department, the dispatchers,” he said. “We want to save lives. That’s what we’re about, and when we’re not successful in doing that, it hurts — it hurts to the core. I believe that everything was done that was humanly possible, given the circumstances and at that time, to save Ms. Stevens’ life. I am horribly sorry that wasn’t possible.”
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