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911 dispatcher scolds caller stranded in floodwaters shortly before she drowns

"You’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out," the 911 operator said to the woman. When first responders reached the caller, she had died.
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A 911 dispatcher in Arkansas scolded a woman stranded in floodwaters shortly before the woman drowned.

The incident has led police in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to apologize and review their policies for emergency responses during storms.

Debra Stevens, 47, was delivering newspapers at about 4:38 a.m. on Aug. 24 when her car was swept away by floodwaters and got stuck in a copse of trees off the roadway amid rising waters, Fort Smith police said.

Her call to 911 was answered by then-dispatcher Donna Reneau, who was working her last shift as a 911 operator after she had presented her resignation earlier this month, NBC affiliate KARK reported.

During the call, Stevens told Reneau she was unable to get out of her car because she did not know how to swim.

As waters continued to rise up past Stevens’ chest and cover her vehicle, she panicked and repeatedly said, "I'm going to die."

Reneau told her, “You’re not going to die" and "I don’t know why you’re freaking out.”

At one point the dispatcher said to Stevens, "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?"

Roughly about 10 minutes into the call, Stevens asked Reneau to pray with her.

"You go ahead and start the prayer. I'll listen to you, I sure will," Reneau replied.

"Get me out of this water safely, dear Father," Stevens said in her prayer, sobbing.

Reneau stayed on the call with Stevens for 25 minutes. At some points, the dispatcher told Stevens that first responders were also saving other people from floodwaters and that many other emergency calls she needed to attend were coming in.

The dispatcher also said as emergency workers were trying to locate Stevens, “Ms. Debbie you’re going to need to shut up. I need to you to listen to me."

By the time first responders reached Stevens and removed her from her car, at about 6 a.m. — about an hour and a half after she called 911 — she had drowned.

Fort Smith police Chief Danny Baker said in a statement that he was "heartbroken for this tragic loss of life."

"All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome. 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,” Baker said.

Police said in a statement that they were releasing the recording of the call "with great reluctance" because it "contains the audio of a dying person’s last moments" as well as the interaction between her and the dispatcher.

"While the operator’s response to this extremely tense and dynamic event sounds calloused and uncaring at times, sincere efforts were being made to locate and save Mrs. Stevens," the statement said.

Fire and police units "were inundated with 911 calls from other citizens also stranded in floodwaters" at the time, the statement said, and, in addition, Stevens "was having trouble describing her exact location and flooding limited the ability of first responders 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. 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," the statement said.

Reneau had been with the department for five years and was a certified dispatch training officer, according to KARK. She had handed in her resignation on Aug. 9 and took the call during her last shift.

The police chief said he believes everything possible was done in the circumstances to save Stevens. But he said the department has begun to look "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."

A sister-in-law of Stevens told KARK that she had been a lifelong Fort Smith resident who loved children and was passionate about helping the elderly at her church.

She described her as someone who would go out of her way to help friends with doctors appointments and even cleaning their houses.