Emergency dispatchers in Maryland sent firefighters to the Potomac River after a teen called to say her friend had slipped underwater while the group was swimming in a “river.” The caller went on to say her group had been in an “inlet” off the river and that they were in Virginia.
It took 36 minutes for rescuers to reach the teen, 16-year-old Fitz Thomas, who by then had been pulled to a dock by his friends and a passerby who stepped in to help. Fitz, who was preparing to enter his senior year of high school, died.
Emergency centers have long been faced with the challenge of responding to 911 cellphone callers who may not be able to provide a precise address or may be in an open space such as a park or along a highway.
In this case, the technology that produced the map — showing the caller on the bank of a wide, languid creek in Virginia that leads to the Potomac River — is intended to help call centers pinpoint the location of an emergency. The Washington Post received a copy of the map this month after repeated requests to county officials.
“It just blows me away that they didn’t use the information,” said John Melcher, a 911 expert in Texas. “They didn’t use the tools they had at their disposal.
“It was clear data,” added Glenn Marin, another expert who has reviewed the case. “It gave the 911 center an immense body of information to ask questions and seek clarity.”
The response to the June 4 incident was complicated from the start.
The first 911 call, placed by Angela Stefkovich, then 16, pinged from a cellphone tower to the emergency center in Montgomery County, across the river, instead of being answered by call-takers in Loudoun County, where she was standing.
It’s not clear if recognizing where Fitz was or a faster response would have saved his life. He was underwater for several minutes before the first call.
But the confused response from both Montgomery and Loudoun counties has prompted sharp concerns from the Thomas family, and both counties have investigated the incident.
On Thursday, the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee took up the case and received a briefing from fire and police officials. The map generated during the first call was displayed, and the county’s acting 911 director, Cassandra Onley, also described in technical terms how the map was generated.
“It seems like the call center just overrode the information available on the map,” committee member Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said after the meeting.
Earlier, during the meeting, Hucker stressed that he has long been impressed by those working in the county’s 911 center.
“I have tremendous respect, as you all know, for our 911 operators and the importance of their work and the dedication they show and the stress they’re under,” he said.
Reached after the meeting, County Council President Sidney Katz (D-District 3) said he would defer to technological experts about how the 911 center’s mapping systems performed during the call but indicated he was troubled by the overall response.
“I am concerned about every part of what took place,” Katz said.
The caller’s description that her group was in a Virginia inlet was never typed into the 911 center’s ongoing response to the call.
Melcher, the expert in Texas, said that after the first caller used the word “river,” she was getting more specific about precisely where they were — an inlet in Virginia.
“911 operators are trained to take the initial information and go more granular, and that’s what the caller was trying to do: Go more granular,” Melcher said. (END)