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Arkansas 911 Dispatcher Tells Woman To 'Shut Up' As She Drowns To Death

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Who is Donna Reneau? New Details On The 911 Dispatcher Who Told Drowning Woman "Maybe This Will Teach You"

When you call 911, you aren't often worried about being Miss Manners. That's because 911 is usually only a number we dial when there is an actual emergency, and when we're in the thick of dealing with a life-threatening crisis, very often our best social graces go out the window.

Who is Donna Reneau?

She's a former 911 dispatcher who used to save lives with her calls daily.

Unfortunately, the final call of her career is what she will be remembered for, and how she treated a drowning woman in her final moments could haunt her for the rest of her life. 

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Here's what we know about Donna Reneau, the 911 call, and the fallout of her actions.

Reneau was a 911 dispatcher.

Until August 2019, Reneau had an extremely stressful job. She worked in Fort Smith, Arkansas as a 911 dispatcher.

Unfortunately, what she's going to be remembered for more than all the calls where she maybe actually helped people is one of the last calls of her career where she berated a drowning woman named Debra Stevens who called 911 for help after getting caught up in a flash flood. 

"This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water,” said Donna, among other blistering indictments against the dying woman.

Fort Smith Police chief Danny Baker issued a statement, saying, "I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s family and friends. 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."

There's audio recording of the 911 call.

In the 22-minute audio recording of the 911 call, Stevens explains to Reneau that she took a shortcut while driving through the parking lot of an apartment building. Unfortunately, in the process, she got trapped by flash flooding.

Stevens explained on the call that she was trapped in her car and that the water flooding the interior was already up to her chest and to make matters worse, she couldn't swim. “I can’t get out and I’m scared to death, ma’am. Please help me. I don’t want to die,” she said.

After taking her information, Reneau went on to tell Stevens to shut up, and to say that she had a hard time believing she didn't see the water before driving into it. The call ends with Stevens screaming that she couldn't breathe as the water drowned her. 

The call happened on Reneau's final shift.

Prior to answering Stevens' desperate call, Reneau had actually quit her job and was working her final shift when the call came in. For five years, she worked as a 911 dispatcher and she was so good at her job that she was actually certified to help other people, too.

Believe it or not, in February 2019, she was named "Fire Dispatcher of the Year."

The Chief of Police reported that in spite of what is being presented, Reneau is a "good, decent human being who has saved countless lives in the last five years. It is so unfortunate that her entire career will be defined by this single incident."

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There were other factors that contributed to what went wrong.

Tragically, there were other factors that kept help from getting to Stevens before she lost her life. Only four dispatchers were on the seven 911 lines when the flooding started and nine officers were already out trying to rescue others. 

“Also exacerbating response and rescue efforts were the facts that Mrs. Stevens was having trouble describing her exact location and flooding limited the ability of first responders to reach her,” said a press release issued by the police.

When the team did arrive to save her, the flooding delayed their attempts to get to her: “When first responders were finally able to reach Mrs. Stevens and extract her from the vehicle, she had tragically succumbed to drowning.”

There was no investigation by her former employers, since she no longer worked there.  

While Reneau's boss agreed that the way she spoke to Stevens wasn't ideal, he did admit that it wasn't so bad that he would ever have considered firing a dispatcher for it.

“The manner that she spoke during this conversation would have probably been addressed, but it would have been more a rudeness quality-type service complaint. I don’t think it would have risen to the level of terminating someone. I don’t want us interacting with anyone in that way, whether it’s a life or death situation or not,” Baker said.

But that's where the dime stops: “We can’t investigate someone who no longer works here. However, an investigation into our policies, our responses, our dispatch center, I’ve talked to the fire chief. We are looking at what we can do to increase training for our dispatchers, swift water rescues, and other things.”

The police received death threats.

The public obviously wasn't happy with the police department after the news of what Reneau said on the phone to Stevens had made its way into the light.

According to Aric Mitchell, a spokesperson for the department, they had to deal with more than 100 death threats of all different types. That said, he believes it is just people lashing out because they are upset and that “there isn’t anything that would rise to a threat level of concern, as most appear to be from out-of-state and include no specificity."

Hopefully, the changes they make to their policies get them back in the good graces of the people. 

Reneau was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In December 2019, the police released their internal review on Reneau. The review concluded that she had done her job as required.

The police department’s deputy director of administration, Dean Pitts, wrote, “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.”

Reneau does not face any criminal charges in Stevens' death. 

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cats, Batman and Margot. She's an experienced generalist with a passion for lifestyle, geek news, pop culture, and true crime. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted on September 2019 and was updated with the latest information.