‘How Could You Fail Us?’ Frustrations Continue after Drowning Response Report

Failures in the response to 911 calls the night Fitz Thomas drowned at Confluence Park have already prompted new technology and protocols, Fire-Rescue Chief Keith Johnson told county supervisors on Tuesday, but according to Fitz’s mother it isn’t enough to make it right.

County supervisors this week heard the result of an in-depth report on the response to calls for help on June 4, when responders took more than half an hour to respond to the River Creek neighborhood as dispatchers passed calls back and forth between Loudoun and Montgomery County, MD, waved off help from the Loudoun side, and appeared not to know Loudoun landmarks and geography. And while many applauded the thoroughness and transparency of the report—“I’ve seen these type of reports before, and this is by far the most thorough that I’ve seen or been presented,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge)—they also found it frustrating.

“Your response has been markedly different from what we often see from police chiefs and fire chiefs when something goes very badly wrong,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “And so often you see people get very, very defensive, and start pointing fingers, and I really do feel that you’ve taken a look inside, and I appreciate this full report and your efforts to be transparent and honest.”

“It is very difficult to understand how we could have been slow to respond to what was clearly an event in Loudoun County, and to a location that pops up on Google Maps if you just Google it.” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “So it’s hard for me, as a layman, to understand why we didn’t have a better sense of where everything was at the get-go.”

Fire-rescue officials have said many of the problems stemmed from confusion over the callers’ locations and now-updated policies on responses in the Potomac River. Cell phone calls were at first routed to dispatchers on the Montgomery County side, and Loudoun dispatchers did not find out about the incident until 17 minutes after the first call. But even after hearing about it—and hearing from frustrated callers that they were on the Loudoun side of the river—Loudoun dispatchers repeatedly transferred callers back to Montgomery County. On two occasions, Montgomery County dispatchers told Loudoun dispatchers their help was not needed.

The river is also considered Maryland jurisdiction, and Johnson said the policy to defer to Maryland unless asked for help—a policy also formalized in a regional agreement, which he is now seeking to change—has since been reversed locally. Instead, dispatchers will conference in their counterparts across the river, rather than transferring, and will immediately send help from both sides.

But County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said that report made her feel like she was “in the Twilight Zone.”

“Caller after caller after caller after caller said we’re in Confluence Park. In River Creek,” Randall said. “So you cannot keep telling me that you didn’t respond because he was in the Potomac River and the Potomac belongs to Maryland. I know that. But he wasn’t in the Potomac River. He was in the Goose Creek in Confluence Park, which is ours, and every single caller told you that.”

“How could you fail us?” asked Fitz’s mother Michelle Thomas, who spoke during the public input session before the report. “How could you fail me? Before you break your hands patting yourself on the back saying you made great changes, remember those changes are paid for with Fitz’s breath. Nobody should have to die for this county to be proactive.”

And after hearing the report, Thomas said it isn’t enough.

“As I’ve sat here and I’ve listened to all these wonderful things that they’re doing after the fact, it’s unbelievable that they could come up with a litany of fixes post my son’s death, but couldn’t come up with these fixes prior,” Thomas said. “How many other kids died, or other people died, because they weren’t willing to take a realistic look at their systems and the way they’re doing business?”

She said Johnson was “not being able to say to himself, and be honest with himself, that you guys missed the ball on listening.” And while the department has promised new training for dispatchers, she also called for the dispatchers involved to be fired.

“They should not be on phones making life and death decisions,” Thomas said. “Even with training, I am not sure if they have the makeup, the compassion, that’s necessary to do that job. They have to be removed from that job.”

She also wanted to know what the county will do “to make this family whole.”

“I don’t know what that looks like, but I think this is a good time to get in the room and start to have this discussion, because they can’t avoid their accountability for the denial of lifesaving support for my son,” she said.

Thomas is the president of the Loudoun NAACP; immediate past president and Leesburg attorney Phillip Thompson is leading that work. He said while they have not filed a lawsuit yet, they are waiting to see a similar report planned in Montgomery County that has not yet been released. He said “logic tells you, you should have resources from both sides” responding.

“There was just a lot of small mistakes that became bigger as they went forward,” Thompson said. “And we think both counties should step up and be responsive.”

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