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911 Dispatcher Under Fire After Telling Panicked Arkansas Woman To ‘Shut Up’ Before She Drowned

ABC News/YouTube, NWA homepagecom/YouTube

A woman from Fort Smith in Arkansas was on the verge of drowning when her vehicle was washed off the road by floodwaters while delivering newspapers and was unable to escape.

She cried out for help on 911, pleading:

“Please help me, I don’t wanna die.”

But what she got was a cold reception.

The last words she lived to hear was the emergency dispatcher who told her to “shut up.”

Debra Stevens, 47, ultimately drowned.

The dispatcher Donna Reneau, who had been working for the Fort Smith Police Department for five years as a certified dispatch training officer, was on her final shift after handing in her resignation on August 9.

Massive outrage sparked after the heartbreaking audio recording was released on Thursday in which you can hear Reneau yelling at Stevens in her time of crisis.

In the recording, you can hear Reneau lecturing Stevens.

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

Stevens, who was delivering newspapers for the Southwest Times Record, was sobbing on the phone as the water level was rising to her chest.

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


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?”

An increasingly frantic Stevens cried:

“These people are out. They can all see me, they’re all standing out, they’re watching me…”

Stevens, lacking patience, continued yelling.

“Miss Debbie, you’re going to have to shut up, OK? I need you to listen. Listen to me!”

According to KFTA, the SUV was completely covered in water by the time first responders arrived.

In the 911 call, Reneau told Stevens “to stop” and “you’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out.”

Police stated Reneau had not committed a crime while responding to Stevens’ distress call.

According to the department’s statement released on Facebook, officers could not understand Stevens’ description of her location, making it difficult for first responders to reach her.

“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.”

They added:

“When first responders were finally able to reach Mrs. Stevens and extract her from the vehicle, she had tragically succumbed to drowning.”

Fort Smith Interim Police Chief Danny Baker said he understood “the disgust and concern in regards to the interactions between the dispatcher and Ms. Stevens.”

“It’s a tragic thing; I understand that. Is there maybe things we need to look at in our response? Absolutely.”

Baker mitigated the tragedy by explaining how the department was inundated that morning with 911 calls from others 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.”

Emergency procedures for a person trapped in a vehicle in rising floodwaters advise telling the person to exit through their window and climb onto the roof of their vehicle so they can be spotted by rescue workers and not drown as quickly.

Stevens was never told to do this by Reneau.

Baker added:

“I believe that everything was done that was humanely [sic] possible given the circumstances at that time to save Ms. Stevens life. I’m horribly sorry that it wasn’t possible.”

Baker told reporters that Reneau may have underestimated Stevens’s call and that there will be an internal investigation to see if policies could change to prevent a similar death.

“Obviously, we can’t investigate someone who no longer works here. However, (we’ve launched) an investigation into our responses, our policies, our dispatch center.”

“I’ve been in communication with the fire chief, and we’re looking at how we can enhance our training for our dispatchers.”

Stevens was a life-long Fort Smith resident known as a caring person who was passionate about helping the elderly.

According to a family member, Rebeca Stewart:

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

Knowing how to survive emergencies is something we all can brush up on with the book How to Survive Anything: From Animal Attacks to the End of the World (and everything in between), available here.

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Written by Koh Mochizuki

Koh Mochizuki is a New York-based actor and writer. Originally hailing from Los Angeles, he received his B.A. in English literature and is fluent in Japanese. Disney parks are his passion, and endless cups of coffee are a necessity. Instagram: kohster Twitter: @kohster1