KEY POINTS

  • Former dispatchers have accused a 911 call center in Pennsylvania of being a hub of racism and negligence 
  • A dispatcher hung up on a Spanish-speaking caller, who later died in a fire, because she did not understand him
  • Other dispatchers slept on the job or played games, which resulted in emergency calls being left unanswered

A man in Pennsylvania and his 14-year-old nephew died in a fire last year because a 911 dispatcher did not understand his Spanish pleas for help and hung up on the emergency call, court documents showed.

Heriberto Santiago Jr. called 911 on July 27, 2020 to report a fire in his home in the 700 block of North Fair Street in Allentown, newspaper The Morning Call reported, citing a federal lawsuit filed in the city's U.S. District Court last Wednesday.

Santiago, who only spoke in Spanish, begged the Lehigh County dispatcher to send help, but she made no effort to use a language help line or even ask assistance from another dispatcher, according to the outlet. The dispatcher, instead, allegedly told Santiago she did not understand him and instructed the caller to speak in English before hanging up.

The 40-year-old and his nephew, Andres Javier Ortiz, later died from the fire as a result of the dismissed emergency call, the 72-page suit filed on behalf of seven former dispatchers and supervisors alleged.

The lawsuit’s seven plaintiffs, identified as Justin K. Zucal, David M. Gatens, Francis C. Gatens, John S. Kirchner, Emily M. Geiger, Julie L. Landis and Brandi L. DeLong Palmer, have accused the Lehigh County call center of being a hub of racism and negligence that put callers and emergency personnel in danger, a report by the Lehigh Valley Live said.

The center had a "hostile environment" toward minorities and Spanish-speaking callers, which included Santiago's case, the suit alleged.

Some 911 dispatchers openly claimed they "[did] not like taking calls from Spanish people" and refused to use a call translation service to help with Spanish-speaking callers, according to the lawsuit. Others, allegedly slept on the job or played a cornhole game during work shifts, which left some calls unanswered.

In one instance, a dispatcher allegedly missed emergency calls related to shootings because he went to the roof of the county administration building to watch fireworks.

The suit’s plaintiffs allegedly made complaints to supervisors about a lack of training and supervision that put first responders at risk, but they were fired or forced to resign in early 2020 for taking part in a New Year's Eve toast with an eggnog-like drink that contained alcohol — a violation of county policy.

The firings, however, were pretextual and were in retaliation for raising alarms about misconduct, mismanagement and problems with equipment in the 911 center, the suit said.

Other officials allegedly had alcohol drinks in other events before, but they were not disciplined for violating the policy against alcoholic beverages on county property, according to the document.

The suit, which named county Executive Phillips Armstrong, Human Resources Director Marc Redding, County Administrator Ed Hozza Jr., former Emergency Services Director John Kalnych, former 911 Center Director Laurie Bailey and supervisor Christine Gehringer as defendants, is seeking for the reinstatement of the plaintiffs as well as back pay, compensatory damages as well as damages for emotional distress, pain and suffering after they were allegedly fired for reporting various issues in the center.

Lehigh County officials, in response to the allegations in connection to Santiago's case, dismissed the allegation that a dispatcher hung up on the Spanish caller and claimed authorities responded within five minutes from receiving his emergency call.

make-a-phone-call-5300447_1920 Representation. Some dispatchers at Lehigh County's 911 center openly claimed that they "do not like taking calls from Spanish people," according to a lawsuit. Photo: Pixabay