Home Scandal and Gossip Shut up! 911 dispatcher avoids charges after Arkansas woman drowning scalding

Shut up! 911 dispatcher avoids charges after Arkansas woman drowning scalding

Donna Reneau Arkansas 911 operator and Debra Stevens
Pictured, Donna Reneau Arkansas 911 operator and Debra Stevens (right).
Donna Reneau Fort Smith dispatcher Arkansas 911 operator
Pictured, Donna Reneau Fort Smith dispatcher.

Donna Reneau Fort Smith dispatcher cleared of wrongdoing in Debra Stevens Arkansas drowning call after being heard on audio being callous and telling her to shut up. 

A 911 dispatcher who scalded a drowning woman after accidentally driving into rising floodwaters in Arkansas, telling her to ‘shut up’ minutes before she died has been cleared of any wrongdoing following an internal investigation.

Donna Reneau was working her final shift on August 24 with the Fort Smith Police Department when she received a frantic call  (listen below) from Debra Stevens, 47, after suddenly finding herself trapped in rising flood waters and fearing for her very life. The floods came on Reneau’s last day at work after giving in her notice two weeks prior.

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.’

Stevens had been delivering newspapers in the early hours in Fort Smith when she accidentally drove into rising flood waters that swept her SUV off the road.

Stevens dialed 911 as her car began submerging, 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’. 

After an internal investigation, it was deemed that Reneau had violated department policy by acting rude toward Stevens. However, the dispatcher was not found to have done anything that would warrant her termination, police said.

‘No evidence of criminal negligence or activities on former Operator Reneau’s part. In fact, the evidence shows that while Operator Reneau spoke rudely to Mrs. Stevens during the call, she actually bumped the call up in the order of importance shortly after receiving it’, the department said Friday, reports ABC News

Could Debra Stevens have survived had Reneau been conciliatory? 

It remained unclear whether Stevens might have survived had Reneau’ who at the time had been fielding other similar calls as a result of flooding conditions in the area – had been more conciliatory. Others wondered if instead of inflaming tensions, Reeneau was able to calm the driver she may have conserved more energy and been able to cope with rising waters. 

Previously lauded as dedicated and skilled 911 dispatcher: 

Reneau 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.

‘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 read according to a report via the dailymail

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 explains valuing the work that she does and caring 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’.

Fort Smith dispatcher: ‘This will teach you next time not to drive in the water…’

Audio of the 911 call documenting the 22 minute exchange between Reneau and Stevens was released August 29, after the dispatcher and police department faced fierce criticism for how Steven’s pleas for help were responded given the diabolical circumstances she found herself in.

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.

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 is heard saying 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’. she added.

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 needed to vomit, Reneau exclaims: ‘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 with Reneau replying: ‘You go ahead and start the prayer’.

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’.

Arkansas authorities willing to face up to where they fell short? 

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.

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 at the time 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.

Likely faced disciplinary acton had Fort Smith dispatcher not resigned weeks prior:

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 or subject to a criminal investigation.

Police Chief Baker 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.

Authorities said that when they did eventually locate Debra Stevens, 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,’ Baker said.