Fort Smith, AR – A Fort Smith Police Department (FSPD) 911 dispatcher callously belittled and scolded a woman who ultimately ended up drowning before police could rescue her from raging floodwaters.
Donna Reneau had already submitted her resignation and was working her last shift as a FSPD 911 operator when she took a call from 47-year-old Debra Stevens at approximately 4:38 a.m. on Aug. 24, NCB News reported.
Stevens was out delivering newspapers when her vehicle was swept off of the roadway by rising floodwaters.
Her SUV came to rest in a patch of trees, but the water continued to rise and Stevens had never learned to swim, NBC News reported.
She frantically called 911 and attempted to tell Reneau where she was located.
“The water’s all the way up to my windows!” she told the dispatcher in the 911 audio recording. “Please help me! I don’t want to die!”
“You’re not gonna die. Hold on for a minute,” Reneau replied. “You’re not gonna drown. Just calm down.”
As the water rose up to her neck, Stevens tearfully explained how the gushing flood swept her vehicle away before she even realized what was happening.
“I’m gonna die,” the frightened woman sobbed. “I need to call and tell my mommy bye.”
Stevens then said that she wanted to try to get out and swim, but that she didn’t know how.
“Somebody save me,” she begged.
“Am I not on the phone with you trying to get you some help?” Reneau replied. “Okay? So stop…You’re not gonna die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out.”
Stevens urged police to hurry, and asked the dispatcher how long it would take them to reach her.
“As soon as they get there,” Reneau told her.
Stevens also expressed concern that her phone was going to get wet and die, preventing rescuers from being able to locate her.
“Do you really care about your brand-new phone?” the dispatcher retorted. “I mean, you’re over there crying for your life. Who cares about your phone?”
When the petrified woman said that she felt like she was going to vomit, Reneau told her to just do it.
“You’re in water,” she pointed out. “It’s not gonna matter.”
At one point during her call for help, Stevens begged Reneau to pray with her.
“You go ahead and start of the prayer and I’ll listen to you. I sure will,” the dispatcher replied.
Reneau assured Stevens that officers and the fire department had both been dispatched to her location.
“This will teach you next time – don’t drive in the water,” the dispatcher scolded her. “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it, so…The water just didn’t appear.”
The dispatcher asked Stevens how tall she was, and told her that she could probably stand up in the water outside her vehicle and keep her head above it.
“It’s higher than me!” Stevens sobbed.
“I don’t think so,” Reneau responded.
Stevens told her she was only five feet tall.
“Okay, well you’re not three-foot, so you’ll be just fine,” the dispatcher concluded.
Rescuers were inundated with calls for help, and pulled at least one other person to safety before they were able to respond to Stevens’ location.
Reneau told Stevens that multiple people had called 911 to get help for her.
“They’re not gonna get their self in danger because you put yourself in danger,” the dispatcher admonished.
Stevens repeatedly apologized throughout the call, and at one point thanked Reneau for being on the phone with her.
Rescuers struggled to pinpoint the desperate woman’s exact location, and Stevens frantically tried to explain where she was.
“Miss Debbie, you’re gonna have to shut up, okay?” Reneau snapped at one point during the fury of radio communications.
As first responders raced to find Stevens, she suddenly began screaming that the water was sweeping her vehicle away.
The 911 call was disconnected at 5 a.m., according to a FSPD press release.
First responders spotted Stevens’ vehicle two minutes later, but the dangerous waters thwarted their efforts to reach her.
"When first responders were finally able to pinpoint the location of Mrs. Stevens’ vehicle, the swift, rising water made immediate rescue impossible,” Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker said in a statement, according to NBC News. “An officer on scene removed his duty gear, donned a life vest, and was ready to enter the current tied to a rope but the speed and volume of water made this attempt futile.”
A rescue boat arrived at the scene at 5:16 a.m., and rescuers pulled Stevens from the SUV at 5:58 a.m.
By then, she had already drowned.
Chief Baker said that he was “heartbroken” that they were unable to find her in time.
"All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome,” he said, according to NBC News. “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.”
The chief acknowledged that “the operator’s response to this extremely tense and dynamic event sounds calloused and uncaring at times,” but he said that Reneau made “sincere efforts…to locate and save Ms. Stevens,” NBC News reported.
Reneau was a certified dispatch training officer, and had been with the FSPD for five years.
She was named as Fire Dispatcher of the Year in February, according to an FSPD Facebook post.
Chief Baker said he was confident that Reneau and the rescuers did everything possible to save Stevens, but that the department will be looking “into our policies, our responses, our dispatch center...We're looking at what we can do to increase training for our dispatchers in regards to swift water rescue and other things,” NBC News reported.
Because Reneau had already submitted her resignation weeks prior to the incident, an internal investigation into how she handled the situation would be pointless, Chief Baker told KARK.
“Obviously we can’t investigate someone who no longer works here,” he explained.
The SFPD released the 911 call with “great reluctance” after receiving “numerous requests” from the media, the agency said in a press release.