On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue System will present the Board of Supervisors with an update on changes to the system’s 911 responses prompted by the drowning of Fitz Thomas.
On June 4, 2020, 16-year-old Fitz Thomas, the son of Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas, drowned in the waters at mouth of the Goose Creek at Confluence Park in the River Creek neighborhood. First responders took more than half an hour to respond to the scene, and 911 call recordings revealed dispatchers passing the calls back and forth between Loudoun and Montgomery County, MD, waving off help from the Loudoun side of the Potomac River, and seeming not to know Loudoun landmarks and geography.
After an internal investigation and report, fire-rescue officials said many of the problems began when cell phone calls were routed to Montgomery County dispatchers across the river. Loudoun dispatchers did not find out about the incident until 17 minutes after the first call. But even after they did—and being told by frustrated callers that they were on the Loudoun side of the river—Loudoun dispatchers repeatedly transferred callers back to Montgomery County. The river is also considered inside Maryland’s jurisdiction, although Thomas was not in the Potomac.
During a review of what the county fire-rescue system began calling the Perdido Bay Terrace incident, after the nearest road, the department listed 42 changes to their procedures, training and technology to improve their response times, especially along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in a relatively short amount of time,” stated system Chief Keith Johnson in a press release prior to the Nov. 3 meeting. “While our review showed that staff in Montgomery County and Loudoun County properly followed existing policies and procedures during the June 4 incident, we remain committed to doing anything we can to improve our emergency communications system and incident responses.”
According to the fire-rescue department, they have completed or nearly completed 37 of those 42 items, with the rest at least half done. Those range from immediately responding to any calls on the river rather than waiting on Maryland, to developing an interactive atlas of the Potomac River for 911 dispatchers and first responders, to increasing 911 call center staffing and adding 240 missing commonplace names to the county’s Computer Aided Dispatch system.
The county has denied culpability in Thomas’s death, alleging a timeline that saw him underwater for at least five minutes before his friends noticed he was missing. The county also says he had been underwater for more than 25 minutes by the time friends and bystanders found him and pulled him to shore—first responders had still yet to arrive. Reports indicate that mud and water were coming from his nose as they administered CPR, guided by the Montgomery County 911 center.
“The changes and improvements to our policies and procedures that we’ve made over the past year and are working to complete now make us better, but sadly, they would not have saved young Mr. Thomas because he was under water far too long,” Johnson stated. “We recognize how difficult this unfortunate accident has been for those who knew and loved Fitz Thomas and I pray one day those who mourn him will feel some comfort knowing that their loss has inspired and will continue to inspire meaningful change across our community.”
The county also said through its press release that its procedural changes are hampered by the family’s decision against a third-party medical investigator and sharing HIPPA-protected information from the incident.
The county’s report on safety improvements and the progress on each of those tasks is online at loudoun.gov/incidentreview.