Pa. man, nephew died in fire after dispatcher hung up on Spanish-speaking caller, lawsuit says

Seven Allentown supervisors and dispatchers who say they were fired for reporting mismanagement also allege other types of misconduct


Peter Hall
The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — An Allentown man and his 14-year-old nephew died in a fire in July 2020 because a Lehigh County 911 dispatcher did not understand his pleas for help in Spanish and hung up the call, a federal lawsuit by a group of former dispatchers alleges.

The seven supervisors and dispatchers who say they were fired for reporting mismanagement in the dispatch center also allege they saw dispatchers and supervisors sleeping on the job, doing outside work, watching movies so loudly they drowned out emergency communications, playing cornhole during working hours and other misconduct. In another instance, a dispatcher missed emergency calls related to shootings because he went to the roof of the county administration building to watch fireworks, the suit says.

A vigil was held on July 28 to honor the lives of Andres
A vigil was held on July 28 to honor the lives of Andres "Dinky" Ortiz and Heriberto "Nuni" Santiago, who died in fire in an Allentown home. (Photo/Gabrielle Rhoads/Tribune News Service)

The lawsuit alleges Spanish-speaking callers were often denied help because some 911 dispatchers said they “do not like taking calls from Spanish people.”

The suit alleges that another life was lost as a result of negligent and reckless handling of an emergency call that left the dispatcher unable to provide the exact location of the person in jeopardy. When a supervisor reported the dispatcher’s misconduct, she was rebuked by supervisors, accused of mishandling a call herself and ultimately terminated, the suit says.

The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Allentown on behalf of Justin K. Zucal, David M. Gatens, John S. Kirchner, Emily M. Geiger, Julie L. Landis and Brandi L. DeLong Palmer.

The seven former employees suing the county are among those who 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, in violation of county policy. The suit alleges that the firings were pretextual and in fact were in retaliation for raising alarms about misconduct, mismanagement and problems with equipment in the 911 center.

The suit claims other emergency dispatchers and supervisors had alcoholic eggnog in the dispatch center during a “secret Santa” party and that county General Services Director Rick Molchany participated in a “whiskey exchange” with the county commissioners before Christmas in 2019 but were not disciplined for violating the policy against alcoholic beverages on county property.

In addition to Molchany, the suit names County Executive Phil 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. A county spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. The plaintiffs’ attorney Frederick Charles also did not return a call.

The 72-page lawsuit details problems with the county 911 center between July 2019 and January 2020 after a merger of Allentown’s emergency dispatch center and the county facility.

In addition to racial discrimination and hostility directed at a Latina supervisor, the suit alleges the fired employees complained that the 911 center was a hostile environment to callers who were members of minority groups and did not speak English fluently. The plaintiffs allegedly warned that 911 center director Bailey’s refusal to pay for special language interpretation telephone lines would lead to tragedy, the suit says.

On July 27, 2020, a fire started in the 700 block of North Fair Street in Allentown in a home occupied by 14-year-old Andres Javier Ortiz and his uncle Heriberto Santiago Jr. Ortiz woke Santiago, who made a 911 call to report the fire. Santiago spoke only Spanish, the lawsuit says.

The dispatcher who answered Santiago’s call could not understand Spanish and did not use a language helpline, nor was she assisted by another dispatcher. As Santiago begged the dispatcher to send help, the dispatcher told him she did not understand and told him to speak English before hanging up. As a result, Santiago and Ortiz died in the fire, the suit alleges.

The suit also alleges the fired 911 center employees made a litany of complaints to supervisors about a lack of training and supervision that put first responders at risk.

The suit says Landis reported to supervisors that due to a lack of supervision, a dispatcher failed to document that there was a gun involved in a domestic violence situation where police were dispatched without knowing that the individual involved was armed.

Zucal complained that the county lacked policies, supervision and discipline to ensure that dispatchers would search license plate numbers to determine whether an emergency call involved criminal activity, the suit says. As a result, a police officer unknowingly responded to an emergency call involving a stolen vehicle, Zucal told supervisors, according to the suit.

“Kalynych, Bailey and other County Supervisors stated that it was not the dispatchers’ responsibility to properly ‘run’ license plates regardless of whether their failure to do so placed police, fire and EMS responders in greater danger or risk of harm,” the suit says.

The suit alleges that Kirchner complained on a daily basis that the four radio channels that firefighters and rescue personnel use to communicate at the scene of an emergency were not being assigned to dispatchers to monitor and were not recorded. Instead, the dispatch center was using a mobile radio to receive the fire ground channels, which was not adequate to receive transmissions throughout the county.

To prove his point, Kirchner took the mobile radio during a fire department response to a house fire in Emmaus to listen for fire-related transmissions or calls for help. While he was listening, firefighters trapped inside the burning building called “mayday” and Kirchner was able to alert the incident commander and dispatch firefighters to help their colleagues.

Kirchner complained that if he had not taken control of the mobile radio, the trapped firefighters’ distress call would have gone unanswered, according to the lawsuit. Kirchner also complained that dispatchers were failing to respond to emergency calls and radio transmissions because they were using the telephone system for non-emergency or personal calls, playing video games on their laptop computers, conducting personal business and falling asleep.

Palmer complained about problems with the 911 center’s telephones and computer-aided dispatch system the suit says. She complained that on two occasions the phone system crashed while she was in the middle of a conversation with an emergency caller and that once the phones went down there was a delay in dispatching help while the phones were restarted. Because individual dispatchers were assigned as the call taker for each agency, all phone calls for the agency went to a single dispatcher leading to delays in answering them and dispatching responses, the suit says. Problems with the dispatch system also caused calls to disappear from dispatchers’ computer screens causing delays of more than an hour for a response, the suit says.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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