A 911 operator who lectured a drowning woman for accidentally driving into floodwaters and told her to ‘shut up’ minutes before she died was once publicly lauded as a model employee by her superiors.
Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker revealed Thursday that Donna Reneau was working her final shift on August 24 when she received a frantic call from Debra Stevens, 47, having given in her notice two weeks earlier.
Stevens had been delivering newspapers in the early hours in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when she accidentally drove into rising flood waters that swept her SUV off the road.
In a desperate panic, Stevens dialed 911 as her car slowly began submerging beneath the oncoming tide, but rather than hear an empathetic and calming voice on the other end of the line she was told by Reneau: ‘Ms Debbie you’re going to need to shut up’ and ‘this will teach you next time don’t drive in the water’.
Reneau’s actions are now being investigated by the Fort Smith PD. However, she was once billed by superiors as a ‘dedicated operator’ who ‘always does an outstanding job’, as part of a glowing Facebook post during National Telecommunicator’s Week in April 2018.
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Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker revealed Thursday that Donna Reneau (pictured) was working her final shift on August 24 when she received a frantic call from Debra Stevens, 47, having given in her notice two weeks earlier
Reneau, who had resigned and was working her final shift as a Fort Smith Police Department dispatcher, was the person to answer Stevens’ (pictured) call at 4.38am
Reneau, who worked at the Fort Smith PD for nearly six years, was billed by superiors as a ‘dedicated operator’ who ‘always does an outstanding job’, as part of a glowing Facebook post during National Telecommunicator’s Week in April 2018
POLICE TIMELINE OF EVENTS IN DEBRA STEVENS’ DROWNING
4.38am: 911 call received. Dispatcher begins gathering information. Every police officer on duty is busy on other calls.
4.40am: Call entered in the system.
4.41am: Fire department is dispatched to the scene.
4.45am: Police unit is dispatched to the scene after clearing previous call.
4.50am: Police/fire arrive on the scene.
4.54am: Police/fire report difficulty locating vehicle.
4.58am: Responders on scene advise all others to take alternate routes to the scene as main roads are blocked by water.
4.59am: Responders request boat.
5.00am: 911 call is disconnected between caller and dispatch.
5.02am: Responders report they have located the vehicle.
5.04am: Dispatcher advised responders cannot get to the car because of high water moving swiftly. Responders begin trying to get to vehicle, donning life vests and ropes.
5.16am: Rescue boat arrives and is launched.
5.58am: Rescuers get to vehicle and remove Stevens’ body.
‘Donna Reneau started her career in the Fort Smith Police Department Communications Center in October 2013. Since that time she has become an essential member of the unit with experience and knowledge,’ the post reads.
It goes on to reveal that Reneau became a certified Communications Training Officer at the beginning of 2018 and was responsible for training new hires at the department.
‘Donna is one of the dedicated operators that you would hear on the other end of the phone if you called with a problem in the middle of the night … Donna is a professional and dedicated operator that always does an outstanding job. Thank you for your dedicated service Donna!’
Quoted as part of the post, Reneau brags about how much she values the work that she does and cares about those in need who call in for help.
‘I have worked at the FSPD for almost 5 yrs now and truly care about my job and the people I talk to on a daily basis,’ Reneau says. ‘To know you have helped someone that needed it gives you a great feeling. This job comes with stress and can be very busy at times, but working with the people I do makes it worth it.’’
However, audio of the 911 call documenting the 22 minute exchange between Reneau and Stevens was released Thursday, with the dispatcher and police department facing fierce criticism for how Steven’s terrified pleas for help were responded to in her final moments.
Stevens repeatedly told the dispatcher that she was going to die because the water was rising up past her chest and had engulfed the inside of her SUV.
She begged for the dispatcher to send help and said she was scared.
Bodycam video released by the Fort Smith Police Department shows first responders searching for Stevens’ car when she called 911 to say she was trapped in flood waters
Stevens repeatedly told the dispatcher that she was going to die because the water was rising up past her chest and had engulfed the inside of her SUV
Reneau could be heard telling Stevens to stop crying and calm down.
‘You’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out. I know the water level is high… but you freaking out is doing nothing but losing your oxygen so calm down,’ Reneau said in the audio.
Stevens repeatedly apologized to the dispatcher, saying she didn’t even see the water before she drove into it and that she had never done anything like this before.
‘This will teach you next time not to drive in 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.
‘You’re not the only one who has been stuck in the water. So calm down.’
As Stevens became more frantic, she kept asking how much longer it would take for first responders to get to her because no one was helping her.
‘Am I not on the phone with you trying to get you some help?’ Reneau responded.
At one point, Stevens even apologized for ‘being rude’ to the dispatcher due to her constant pleas for help.
When Stevens said she need to vomit, Reneau hit back saying: ‘Well you’re in water, you can throw up it’s not going to matter.’
Stevens eventually asked the dispatcher to pray with her while she waited for first responders to arrive and Reneau replied: ‘You go ahead and start the prayer.’
Reneau, who had been a dispatcher for five years with the department, could be heard telling Stevens to stop and calm down repeatedly throughout the call
She told the dispatcher that she could see some people standing on their balcony watching and noted she thought it was ‘pretty rude’ they weren’t helping her.
Reneau responded: ‘A lot of people have called in on you, so don’t think people are just sitting there. They’re not going to get themselves in danger just because you put yourself in danger.’
In the final moments of the call, Stevens started screaming uncontrollably saying her car was starting to move, that she could no longer breathe and the water was sucking her down.
Police said the 911 operator had dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units to help Stevens but it made it difficult because she couldn’t describe her exact location. Pictured above is dashcam video of authorities searching for her car
Reneau could be heard telling the first responders searching for her: ‘I’m on the phone with her now and she is legit freaking out. She says the vehicle is now moving in the water.’
After it started to sound like Stevens was speaking underwater, Reneau said: ‘Miss Debbie? Miss Debbie’ before saying ‘Oh my god. Did they find her? She’s under water now.’
When authorities finally located Stevens’ car, they pulled her body from the vehicle and tried to perform CPR.
She had already drowned.
Police Chief Danny Baker said he could completely understand the ‘disgust and concern’ people have had over the interaction between the dispatcher and Stevens.
‘It’s a tragic thing, I understand that. Is there maybe things we need to look at in our response? Absolutely,’ he said.
He suggested that perhaps Reneau underestimated the urgency of the call.
Baker said 911 had been inundated with calls at the time from people who were also stranded in flood waters.
There were nine officers and four 911 dispatchers on duty at the time.
‘Probably having another dispatcher in there at that time would have been helpful but remember we’re talking at 4.30 in the morning so getting folks down there to assist with dispatch would have been difficult,’ Baker said.
‘I believe that everything was done that was humanely possible given the circumstances at that time to save Ms Stevens life. I’m horribly sorry that it wasn’t possible.’
It is not clear if Stevens’ 911 call was the last one she took.
She had previously been commended on the police department’s Facebook page for being a ‘professional, dedicated and outstanding’ dispatcher.
Baker acknowledged Reneau would have faced disciplinary action if she still worked with the department but said he couldn’t see anything that would have been cause for termination or a criminal investigation.
He said the police department would be investigating its policies into responses and their dispatch center in the wake of Stevens’ death.
Police acknowledged the 911 call sounded ‘calloused and uncaring at times’ but insisted that ‘sincere efforts’ were made to try and located Stevens.
They said the 911 operator had dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units to help her but it made it difficult because she couldn’t describe her exact location.
Authorities said that when they did eventually locate her, rising waters made an immediate rescue impossible.
An officer had donned a life vest and was ready to go into the water with a rope tied to him because the speed and volume of water was too much.
‘They had an incredible amount of difficulty getting to the car because of the flood conditions. They just weren’t able to get to her on time,’ Mitchell said.