Anatomy of a Telecommunicator Public Relations Disaster

Eric Harne

Eric Harne

Guest Writer

In 2019, a newspaper delivery woman driving her sport-utility vehicle in the early morning hours was swept away by floodwaters and became lodged in some trees. As the waters continued to rise, she made a desperate 911 call for assistance.


Answering the call was a five-year veteran of the center who had recently turned in her resignation. This was her final shift and close to the last call she would take before she left. For nearly 23 minutes, the emergency dispatcher interacted with the caller attempting to locate her exact position so rescue crews could reach her. Ultimately, those efforts came up short and the woman drowned.


While her death was a tragedy, what catapulted the incident into the national consciousness and generated public outrage was not necessarily the emergency dispatcher’s competence, but her tact and tone with the caller. The fallout was brutal.


It is difficult to listen to the recording of the call. Between the caller’s growing panic and the emergency dispatcher’s increasing frustration with both the caller’s demeanor and the attempts to precisely locate her vehicle, the last few minutes are both harrowing and poignant. In fairness to the emergency dispatcher, local news reports indicated that at the time of the flooding the center was staffed with four operators, overwhelmed with calls, and working conditions were “chaotic, at best.” In addition, the newspaper delivery woman’s call was the 15th call due to vehicles in floodwaters that morning, and 19 other calls were made following hers.


However, it would be to the emergency dispatcher’s everlasting discredit that she berated the caller’s actions and behavior during the call. At different junctures she told her to “shut up,” “this will teach you next time don’t drive in the water,” and “I don’t see how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over it, so.”


The difficulty with assessing an incident such as this is objectively examining the totality of the circumstances. The emergency dispatcher’s comments, while harsh, were a small part of a 23-minute call that, if listened to in its entirety, clearly shows the emergency dispatcher doing her best from a purely technical standpoint to get the caller help as quickly as possible. In that regard, she was nearly flawless under the circumstances.


Unfortunately, when the various news media obtained a recording of the incident, the call was sometimes reduced to the emergency dispatcher’s ill-chosen comments, which were replayed repeatedly to a national audience. From there a firestorm erupted consisting of social media crusaders who felt it their collective duty to be judge, jury, and executioner regarding the emergency dispatcher’s actions—without the benefit of a complete investigation.


The viciousness with which the social media mob attacked the emergency dispatcher and the 911 center she represented cannot be overstated. Providing examples would be pointless since so many were simply emotional knee-jerk reactions lacking any sort of dispassionate insight. However, it should be noted that some of the public’s backlash to the incident included death threats to the emergency dispatcher and harassment of the on-duty personnel in the 911 center. At one point the calls were so numerous that they interfered with the center’s ability to handle calls from people needing assistance from police or fire.


In other words, the people who felt the emergency dispatcher was responsible for the caller’s death were the same ones who put others’ lives at risk to voice their displeasure about it. One can only wonder if that irony was lost on them. 


However inappropriate or misplaced the public’s reaction was regarding the emergency dispatcher’s actions, the 911 center still had a public relations nightmare on its hands. A caller had perished in floodwaters while talking to one of their operators and her choice of words and tone of voice had negatively influenced rescue efforts, thus resulting in the caller’s death. Or at least, that was the perception. This prompted the center to conduct an internal administrative review of the incident, the results of which were surprising given the circumstances and public outcry. 


According to the report there were no indications of any criminal charges that could be filed against the emergency dispatcher, and none of the policy or rule violations that may have occurred would have resulted in her termination had she remained an employee. To recap: Not only had the emergency dispatcher performed her duties as required, but had she remained an employee with the 911 center, none of the possible policy or rule violations that may have occurred in her interactions with the caller would have resulted in her termination. Yet none of this would likely exonerate the emergency dispatcher in the court of public opinion. 


This incident should serve as a cautionary tale for any 911 emergency dispatcher who becomes frustrated with a caller. When processing a call, we can never be sure of its outcome. No matter how great our technical skill, the way we conduct ourselves during a call has implications—positive or negative—that can reverberate beyond the walls of the communication center.


In this case, the emergency dispatcher had no idea how the caller’s emergency would end. She did everything in her power to get the caller the help she needed. Yet the way the emergency dispatcher spoke to the terrified woman is how she will be remembered. This may or may not be fair, but it is a sobering reminder of the impact of our word choices and tone. If we control ourselves, we can often control the narrative. If we don’t, others will.