911 operator in ‘racist’ call centre hung up on man pleading for help in deadly fire because he spoke Spanish, suit claims

Seven former 911 dispatchers are suing Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, after they claim they were fired for raising concerns about racism within the emergency call centre

Megan Sheets
Monday 25 October 2021 15:37
Leer en Español

A 911 operator allegedly hung up on a man pleading for help during a deadly fire because he spoke Spanish.

The alarming claim came to light in a new federal lawsuit which describes the emergency call centre in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, as being rife with racism and silencing employees who raised concerns with county officials.

In July 2020, Heriberto Santiago Jr called 911 to report - in Spanish - that his home in Allentown was on fire, before a dispatcher hung up on him because she said she couldn’t understand him, the suit states.

Both Mr Santiago and his 14-year-old nephew Andres Javier Ortiz were killed in the blaze, according to Lehigh Valley Live.

Seven former 911 dispatchers who brought the suit claim the handling of Santiago’s call was part of a pattern of racism within the “hostile” call centre. The plaintiffs are Justin Zucal, David Gatens, Francis Gatens, John Kirchner, Emily Geiger, Julie Landis and Brandi DeLong Palmer.

They alleged that some white dispatchers openly stated they “do not like taking calls from Spanish people” and would force them to speak English or be denied aid - despite having access to a translation service.

Frank Kane, Lehigh County’s director of community and economic development, refuted the lawsuit’s characterization of the Allentown fire on Friday.

Mr Kane said county officials reviewed 911 tapes and found that the call was handled appropriately, with first responders arriving at the scene three minutes after Mr Santiago placed the call.

“It’s completely untrue that the 911 operator hung up on a Spanish-speaking person,” Mr Kane told The Morning Call.

The federal lawsuit also describes how “countless calls” involving life-threatening emergencies were neglected due to dispatchers and trainees sleeping, trawling the internet and watching TV during their shifts.

The plaintiffs further alleged that their repeated complaints about the dysfunctional digital radio system went ignored, putting callers and first responders at risk.

The defendants said they raised their concerns to county supervisors and administrators at town halls in August and December 2019.

The officials “neglected, ignored and refused to respond” to the complaints, instead hatching a plot to terminate the plaintiffs, the lawsuit alleges.

The plaintiffs claim they were fired in January 2020 after participating in a New Year’s Eve toast for 911 call centre workers.

They were told they were being terminated for violating regulations which prohibit consumption of alcohol during work hours, despite having received permission for the toast, the suit states.

The plaintiffs said they were advised that they could avoid termination and apply for reinstatement if they tendered their resignation. Five of the plaintiffs did so under the impression they would be rehired, but they were not.

The suit accuses Lehigh County, it’s executive Phil Armstrong and six other current and former county officials of violating the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights after they publicly aired their issues with the call centre.

The plaintiffs are seeking reinstatement to their jobs, back pay, compensatory damages and damages for emotional distress.

Mr Armstrong, the county executive, refuted the assertion that concerns were ignored by his office.

“We scrutinise 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 told The Morning Call.

Thomas Caffrey, the solicitor for Lehigh County, did not immediately return The Independent’s request for comment on Monday. When approached by Lehigh Valley Live, Mr Caffrey declined to comment because he had not read the suit, the outlet reported.

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