“Yeah, I know,” Reneau said.
Stevens did die, but only after the dispatcher told the Fort Smith, Ark., woman to “shut up,” chastised her for worrying that the phone call would cut off and berated her for driving into water — water the frantic flood victim swore she had not seen.
“Well, this will teach you,” Reneau can be heard saying in audio of the call released this week by Fort Smith police.
The recording has intensified outrage over the operator’s response that authorities admitted “sounds calloused and uncaring” even as they insist “sincere efforts were being made” to save Stevens, 47, from drowning. Police have launched an internal investigation but said that Reneau — who submitted her resignation earlier in August and was on her last shift when Stevens’s call came in, according to the Southwest Times Record — will probably not face formal repercussions for the way she treated Stevens in the woman’s last minutes alive.
“I can’t breathe,” Stevens says over and over, as her voice becomes increasingly garbled and high-pitched toward the end of her call.
“She is legit freaking out,” Reneau tells other responders after about 20 seconds of the screams.
Fort Smith police said no one was around on Saturday who could answer The Washington Post’s questions, and The Post was unable to reach Reneau.
Stevens’s SUV was swept off the road and into trees by flash flooding last Saturday as she delivered papers for the Times Record, police said. She used her cellphone to call a family member first, then dialed 911 from her vehicle at 4:38 a.m., as the water rose.
Stevens was on the phone with Reneau for approximately 22 minutes as the water level climbed from Stevens’s feet to her head. She told the dispatcher she could not swim.
City fire and police staff were “inundated with 911 calls from other citizens also stranded in flood waters,” police said in a statement. Stevens couldn’t describe her exact location. And flooding made a quick rescue “impossible” when first responders figured out where she was, police said.
An officer wearing a life vest was prepared to wade into the current tied to a rope, “but the speed and volume of water made this attempt futile,” the police department said. By the time authorities reached Stevens and began CPR — about 80 minutes after she first called in terror and nearly an hour after responders located her car — she had drowned.
“All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome,” interim police chief Danny Baker said in a statement. “For every one of us, saving lives is at the very core of who we are and why we do what we do.”
Reneau’s handling of the dying woman’s call led to criticism and mistrust from the public.
“After hearing one of your dispatchers this morning … I’m sick to my stomach,” one man posted on a Facebook event for an upcoming Fort Smith “Coffee with the Cops and 911 Dispatchers.”
“Don’t call 911 in Fort Smith,” another person commented under a police post promoting a Red Cross number for help with floodwaters. “They will let you die and tell you to ‘shut up,’ while you beg for help.”
Reneau joined the police’s Communications Center in 2013 and went on to train new hires, according to a police department post spotlighting the staffer last year as an “essential member of the unit with experience and knowledge.” In February, the Fort Smith Police Department congratulated her on being chosen “Fire Dispatcher of the Year.” A police captain has called Reneau’s attitude while talking to Stevens “uncharacteristic.”
Baker said the police department would have disciplined Reneau if she were still on the force, the Times Record reported. But he said he did not believe the phone call warranted firing or a criminal investigation.
He did say, however, that Reneau may have failed to convey the urgency of Stevens’s call to first responders, contributing to the woman’s death.
Experts say people caught in a car amid flooding should stay inside the vehicle. If the water is rising, the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests trying to climb out through the window and onto the roof of the car. In the audio released, Reneau does not make that suggestion to Stevens.
The internal police investigation will focus on policy changes that could prevent what happened to Stevens from recurring, Baker said, according to the Times Record. City authorities are reexamining their training for dispatchers.
Baker added that police staffing is an “everyday concern” for his department. Four dispatchers were overseeing seven 911 lines when Stevens called, while nine officers were patrolling the city, as is typical for the past couple of years.
Stevens was apologetic at times on the line with Reneau before her death.
“I couldn’t see it, ma’am, I’m sorry,” she said after the dispatcher admonished her not to “drive into water” next time.
“I don’t see how you didn’t see it,” Reneau said. “You had to go right over it, so …”
Audio captures Stevens’s growing fear as she says the water rose to her neck — and Reneau’s direction not long after to “shut up” and listen. Approximately 22 minutes into the call, Stevens’s voice seems to come from underwater.
“I don’t want us interacting with anyone in that way, whether it’s a life or death situation or not,” Baker said, according to the Times Record.
But police Capt. Wes Milam also emphasized the difficulties of a dispatcher’s job, the Times Record reported.
“When they call like that, they have to ascertain a lot of information, and when they get all this information, they have to bring the emotionality out of it to increase rationality,” Milam said, according to the newspaper.
Angela Fritz contributed to this report.