Skip to main content

911 Operator Who Told Woman to ‘Shut Up’ Just Before She Drowned Wasn’t Negligent, Officials Say


Former 911 operator Donna Reneau, who sparked widespread outrage in August for chastising Debra Stevens in her dying moments, still did her job in all of the ways that substantively mattered, officials said in a newly released internal review.

“Despite the manner in which Reneau spoke to Stevens, I can find no indication of negligence in Reneau’s actions in dispatching first responders, nor in the actions of those who responded to the scene,” the Fort Smith police deputy director of administration Dean Pitts wrote, according to Arkansas Online.

The infamous call happened early morning August 24, starting at 4:38 a.m., police said. Stevens, who was delivering newspapers, got caught up in a flash flood while driving. She called 911 for help.

Reneau, who had previously given two weeks notice and was on her last shift as a 911 operator, picked up. As heard in the audio, she subjected Stevens to a verbal finger-wagging.

“I’m scared,” Stevens said. “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before.”

“Well this will teach you next time: Don’t drive in the water,” Reneau said. “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it.”

Stevens was clearly distressed, but at one point, Reneau snapped at her.

“Miss Debbie, you’re going to have to shut up, okay,” she said. “I need you to listen–listen to me!”

According to the previously released police timeline, first responders arrived at the scene at 4:50 a.m., but had trouble locating the vehicle. The call was disconnected at 5:00 a.m. Responders reported two minutes later that they found the vehicle in a stand of trees, but soon determined that they couldn’t get to the car because of high water moving fast. It took until 5:58 a.m. for officials to reach Stevens. It was too late.

At the time, the Fort Smith Police Department acknowledged how bad the audio sounded, but maintained that officials were truly working on saving the victim.

“And 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,” they wrote.

Another detail that contributed to the outrage was that Reneau had previously been named Fire Dispatcher of the Year.

Now officials said Reneau did her job. She would face a review if she still worked as an operator, but even if she was found to have broken any rules, this wouldn’t have justified firing her, Pitts said.

“When dealing with someone during a critical incident, particularly when the person is in hysterics, it is often necessary to take a stern or commanding tone, or to even raise one’s voice,” he said.

Nonetheless, Pitts made some recommendations in how 911 operators are trained and staffed. This included hiring more operators to bring things into compliance with a 2018 staffing recommendation, and to encourage operators to take a course on how to handle flash floods and similar situations.

[Screengrab via ABC]

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime: