The Morning Call
Police and firefighters responded within five minutes to a July 27, 2020, Allentown house fire that killed a man and his 14-year-old nephew, Lehigh County officials said in response to an allegation in a lawsuit that a dispatcher hung up on the man because she didn’t understand Spanish.
Director of Community and Economic Development Frank Kane said Friday that county officials reviewed 911 tapes from the night of the fire and found that the call was handled correctly. The first call reporting the fire was received at 11:22 a.m. and the first police arrived on the scene three minutes later. Firefighters arrived at 11:27 a.m. Heriberto Santiago Jr. and 14-year-old Andres Javier Ortiz died in the fire.
“It’s completely untrue that the 911 operator hung up on a Spanish-speaking person,” Kane said.
County Executive Phillips Armstrong said the county takes seriously complaints about the way its operators conduct themselves while serving the public.
“We scrutinize all complaints, regardless of their source, to make sure that we are in compliance with best practices and that we are serving our residents in the best manner possible,” he said.
Attorney Frederick Charles, who represents the fired employees who filed the lawsuit, did not respond to a message left at his office Friday.
The explosive allegation is included in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of a group of former Lehigh County 911 center employees who claim they were fired in retaliation for reporting misconduct, mismanagement and problems with 911 center procedures and equipment. The plaintiffs allegedly warned that former 911 Center Director Laurie Bailey’s refusal to pay for special language interpretation telephone lines would lead to tragedy, the suit says.
Kane said the 911 center received multiple calls from people reporting the blaze, including one call from a Spanish speaker that was transferred to a bilingual operator. Santiago spoke in a mix of English and Spanish, Kane said.
County officials released a timeline of the calls reporting the fire to the 911 center:
At 11:22 a.m. a dispatcher received the first call reporting the fire and was able to obtain from the caller the address in the 700 block of North Fair Street and the nature of the emergency. Police and fire were dispatched within one minute.
A dozen calls reporting the fire were received between 11:22 a.m. and 11:27 a.m., when firefighters arrived.
A Spanish-speaking caller reached a dispatcher at 11:23 a.m. and was transferred to a translation line, according to the 911 center’s standard procedure. The call was handled correctly without any problems involving the caller’s language. The caller was able to confirm the location of the fire.
Santiago reached a dispatcher at 11:24 a.m. and reported in English that he was trapped in the basement. The call taker told Santiago that help was on the way and that the fire department was dispatched. The call ended and the call taker was unable to reconnect with Santiago because his phone was an unregistered cellphone without a unique number.
The voice recording and computer-aided dispatch system capture information that is never overwritten and is archived in the county’s records management system, county officials said. The Morning Call has requested to hear the tapes.
Kane said he would not comment on other claims in the lawsuit, which alleges that the reason given for terminating or forcing the former employees to resign was pretextual. County officials said in January 2020 that the supervisors and dispatchers were fired for drinking alcohol on the job when they took part in a New Year’s Eve toast with coquito, an eggnog-like drink that typically contains rum.
The dispatchers claim other county employees, including 911 center workers and a cabinet-level official, took part in events involving alcohol on county property but were not disciplined for violating policy.
Instead, the former employees allege they were fired because they reported a litany of issues in the 911 center over a six-month period after it merged with Allentown’s emergency dispatch center.
The suit alleges they reported dispatchers and supervisors sleeping on the job, doing outside work, watching movies so loudly they drowned out emergency communications, playing cornhole during working hours and other misconduct. In one instance, a dispatcher missed emergency calls related to shootings because he went to the roof of the county administration building to watch fireworks, the suit says.
The lawsuit alleges Spanish-speaking callers were often denied help because some 911 dispatchers said they “do not like taking calls from Spanish people.”
The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Allentown on behalf of Justin K. Zucal, David M. Gatens, Francis C. Gatens, John S. Kirchner, Emily M. Geiger, Julie L. Landis and Brandi L. DeLong Palmer.
In addition to Lehigh County, the suit names General Services Director Richard Molchany, Armstrong, Human Resources Director Marc Redding, County Administrator Ed Hozza Jr., former Emergency Services Director John Kalnych, former 911 Center Director Bailey and supervisor Christine Gehringer as defendants.
Morning Call reporter Peter Hall can be reached at 610-820-6581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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