Fort Smith dispatcher under fire after 911 call released

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“She would go out of her way, she was a very giving loving person."

*WARNING: The following content might be disturbing*

FORT SMITH, Ark, (KNWA) — A Fort Smith dispatcher’s conduct is in question over her handling of a drowning woman’s plea for help.

Debra Stevens, 47, was delivering newspapers early Saturday morning when swift waters washed her car off the roadway and she was unable to get out of her car.

Debra Stevens

Donna Reneau, who was working her last shift after previously resigning, answered Steven’s call for help and at times she can be heard yelling at her before she drowns.

The 911 call was released Thursday documenting her last dying moments.

Dispatcher: “Ms. Debbie you’re going to need to shut up. I need to you to listen to me.”

Dispatcher: “This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water…I don’t see how you didn’t see it, you had to go right over it. So?”

Water was rising up past Stevens’ chest and completely covered her SUV.

Donna Reneau

She was heard telling Stevens, who was panicking, “to stop” and “you’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out.”

When first responders were finally able to reach Stevens and remove her from her car, she had already drowned.

“I completely understand the disgust and concern in regards to the interactions between the dispatcher and Ms. Stevens,” says Fort Smith Interim Police Chief Danny Baker. “It’s a tragic thing, I understand that. Is there maybe things we need to look at in our response? Absolutely.”

Baker says Reneau had been with the department for five years and was a certified dispatch training officer.

“We all at our very core want to save lives. That’s what we’re all about…and when we don’t it hurts to the core.”

Fort Smith Interim Police Chief Danny Baker

She handed in her resignation on August 9, and this call was taken during her last shift. It’s possible that it was the last call she took.

Baker says there were nine officers and four dispatchers on duty Saturday morning, inundated with 911 calls from other people also stranded in floodwaters.

“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 humanly possible given the circumstances at that time to save Ms. Stevens life. I’m horribly sorry that it wasn’t possible.”

Baker says he’ll be taking a hard look at how FSPD responds to these accidents in the future.

“Obviously we can’t investigate someone who no longer works here. However, an investigation into our policies, our responses, our dispatch center. I’ve been in communication with our fire chief. We’re looking at what we can do to increase training for our dispatchers in regards to swift water rescue and other things,” Baker said.

He adds that since the dispatcher is no longer employed with the police department, no action will be taken against her because she didn’t do anything criminally wrong.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is drowning-timeline.jpg
Timeline of events

Rebeca Stewart, a family member, says Stevens had a heart of gold and would do anything for anyone.

“She would go out of her way, she was a very giving loving person.”

Rebeca Stewart , Stevens’ sister-in-law

She was a life-long Fort Smith resident who was passionate about helping the elderly at her church.

Stewart described how Stevens would go out of her way to take friends to doctors appointments and clean their houses. She also loved children.

She adds, “she treated my children like they were hers.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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