FORT SMITH, Ark. (KFSM) — A former Fort Smith 911 dispatcher accused of mishandling a call with a drowning woman has been cleared of wrongdoing following an internal investigation.
The investigation was conducted by the Fort Smith Police Department and Fire Department.
Reports state 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 of the night states 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 6 to a higher priority of 4. Records indicate that there were no officers available at the time.
Reneau also put in a fire call, dispatching Ladder 1 on a water rescue call. Ladder 1 got caught in flooding at Greenwood and North O while responding to the call. Records state that while turning the truck around, firefighters rescued someone else who was stranded in floodwaters. As they proceeded back to the route, they were informed that Pumper 7 took over the call and responded.
In recordings released to the public, Reneau was heard telling Stevens, "this will teach you next time don't drive in the water...how you didn't see it, you had to go right over it." She was also heard in the call telling Stevens to "shut up."
Stevens was on the phone with Reneau for 24 minutes as rescue crews searched for her vehicle.
Police and first responders arrived on the scene around 4:50 a.m. but because it was dark, heavily flooded with swift water and with multiple vehicles in the water, they were unable to get to Stevens.
Once the fire department arrived on the scene, they were able to get to Stevens, but she was already deceased.
According to the FSPD report, Stevens called her mother-in-law before calling 911 to come and get her but didn’t understand why she couldn’t. Stevens’ cousin Christina Rabbitt told police that Stevens had health issues early in life that caused her to have the maturity level of a teenager.
Reneau put in her two weeks notice before Stevens' drowning, and the call came in during her last shift.
According to an internal investigation of the 911 communication center, a tactic often used by dispatchers is to take a stern, commanding tone or to even raise their voice with "hysterical" callers. While the recordings show Reneau did use these tactics properly, she did, however, make several statements that passed "beyond the need to take control of the conversation."
Those statements would qualify as a violation if Reneau were still an employee of the City of Fort Smith. If she had been found guilty of the violation, it would not have lead to her being fired.