Being a 911 dispatcher is about as tough a job as there is. The stress is unbearable. While trained to handle all kinds of emergencies, dealing with life and death situations is probably the worst.
Dispatcher Donna Reneau from the Fort Smith Police Department had given her two-weeks notice and was working her very last shift when 47-year-old Debra Stevens called in. Her car had been swept away in a flash flood and was filling with water when she was able to get through to Reneau.
The conversation that took place between the dying woman and the dispatcher is extremely difficult to hear at times — not just because the very last moments of Stevens’ life are recorded but because of the incredibly callous and unfeeling remarks of Reneau.
“Please help me. I don’t wanna die,” Stevens is heard saying in the audio recording, published by 5 News Online.
“You’re not going to die — hold on for a minute,” Reneau responded.
When Stevens said she was scared, the operator said, “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? 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.”
“I’m scared. I’m sorry,” Stevens said, before asking when help would arrive.
“As soon as they get there,” Reneau said.
As the woman grows even more panicky and desperate, Reneau chose that time to chastise the woman for driving into a puddle.
She later told Stevens this incident would teach her “to not drive in the water.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, I didn’t see it.”
“I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it.”“
Incredibly, Reneau tells the woman, who is clinging to life, to “shut up.”
Sixteen minutes into the call, Stevens said that the waters were up to her neck; 20 minutes into the call she screamed that she couldn’t breathe. According to the Times Record, Reneau also told Stevens to “shut up.”
Miss Debbie, you are breathing just fine, because you are screaming at me. So calm down, hold on for me,” Reneau said.
Just three minutes later, Stevens sounds as though she is speaking underwater.
According to police, Reneau dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units, however, they had difficulty locating Stevens, as she was unable to describe her exact location.
It took about an hour to locate Steven’s car so it wouldn’t have mattered. But if that were my mother or sister or wife, I’m sure I would have wanted someone a lot more compassionate and caring sharing those last moments of life with her rather than someone counting down the minutes before she could leave her job.
There will be those who defend the operator who, after all, was handling a very difficult situation with an hysterical victim. Nevertheless, someone who is psychologically not up to handling the pressures of the job in a competent, professional manner should never have been hired in the first place.
The cops aren’t going to investigate because, according to Police Chief Danny Baker, “we can’t investigate someone who no longer works here.” He’s right. No crime was committed and it’s not even clear that any rules were violated.
The only thing violated was our sense of decency and concern that a public servant would act so callously.
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