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Criticism Of 911 Call Handling After Deaths

The handling of a 911 call to a Washington state communications center is just one inquiry into a complicated and long-running case that involves two states, several state and county agencies, a missing woman and the welfare of two young children. In its simplest terms, a state court allowed Josh Powell supervised visits with his two sons, ages 5 and 7. But under pressure from Utah police investigating his missing wife, and his alleged possession of pornography, Powell dowsed his Pierce County home in gasoline on Feb. 5th. When a visitation supervisor arrived at Powell’s house with the two children, Powell let the children inside, then slammed the front door, locking out the supervisor. Within minutes he ignited the gasoline, turning the house into an inferno, killing himself and his two boys. Outside, the visitation supervisor immediately dialed 911 and tried to explain the situation to a calltaker at the Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA) comm center. In an interview with NBC’s “Dateline NBC,” 18-year LESA dispatcher Dave Lovrak admitted that he misinterpreted the supervisor’s information, not realizing it was so urgent.

On the logging tape of the supervisor’s first call at 12:08 p.m., Lovrak was confused from the start, and missed at least one pertinent comment by the supervisor—she had smelled gasoline from inside the house, and feared Powell was about to do something drastic. During a second call made at 12:16 p.m., the supervisor reported the house was now in flames. At that same moment, deputies were being dispatched via radio. It took the first deputy 14 minutes to arrive, after the fire department arrived to see the house in flames.

On the tape, the visitation supervisor seemed unprepared to report such a drastic situation, and did not know the exact address of the home. Lovrak was very brief in his questions and provided no reassurance to the caller. The supervisor tried to explain the long-running nature of the situation, but Lovrak was focused only on the necessary details. At the close of the first call, the supervisor asked how quickly deputies would arrive. Lovrak routinely responded, “I don’t know, ma’am. They have to respond to emergency, life-threatening situations first.”

Tonight NBC aired its interview with Lovrak, who said the incident aftermath has been “a nightmare” and called his handling of the call “clumsy and faltering.” Lovrak’s remarks about his actions were extraordinary, since the incident is still subject to civil litigation by the family, and Lovrak may be subject to discipline by LESA. It’s not clear if LESA granted him permission to speak about the case.

As criticism of the 911 call mounted, LESA director Tom Orr told reporters, “We try to get it right every single time. With humans here sometimes, there are mistakes made. I can’t tell you whether that was the case here until the investigation is complete.” He promised a complete investigation of the 911 call handling. “If there is a need to refine our processes, we will do so,” he said. “If there is a need to investigate from a disciplinary perspective and assign individual responsibility, we will do that as well.”

The Pierce County sheriff’s department was openly critical about how the call was handled by Lovrak, saying it added at least five minutes to the response time. However, sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. Ed Troyer said it was unclear if a quicker response would have prevented the explosion and deaths.

Read more about the 911 call investigation here, a call transcript here, and listen to the two 911 calls here.

In late February a local newspaper obtained Lovrak’s personnel file, which included both commendations, investigations and discipline.

The Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA) that provides public safety communications to Pierce County (Wash.) released this statement from Director Tom Orr:

“We at the Law Enforcement Support Agency are deeply saddened by the deliberate, heinous and evil actions of Josh Powell. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family.

All of us at LESA take our citizens’ safety very seriously and we have begun a full investigation of how these calls were handled. We know that seconds count and we are committed to providing the fastest response possible. Our entire focus is to improve procedures to increase citizen safety and the safety of our officers.

Things that we now know about this evil tragedy are not always so clear to those involved in the initial moments. What happened with this call first comes to us blindly on the other side of a phone; it is only in hindsight that we see things that are not apparent to the call takers.

Having said that, it is critical that the citizens of this county know that we understand our responsibility and that we live by the principle of accountability. We will investigate all aspects of this incident, and if there is a need to refine our processes (as we do continually) we will do so. If there is a need to investigate from a disciplinary perspective and assign individual responsibility, we will do that as well. That process cannot be accomplished overnight – nor should it.

Our primary interest is determining best practices for the critical function that we perform hundreds of thousands of times each year – and get it right well over 99 percent of the time. But we will not be satisfied until we are as close to perfect as we can be. We do this for a simple reason – so that the Pierce County community has confidence in how we perform our mission.

There are no words that adequately express the sorrow we feel for the family of Charlie and Braden. Nor can we dismiss the incredibly evil acts that Josh Powell committed, and his responsibility for the outcome. We will focus on those things that we can do to make our citizens and residents feel safe and be safe.”

8 comments… add one

  • Jack Schidt February 12, 2012, 6:39 pm

    Total BS!!! It was bad enough to hear Mr. Lovrak argue with someone calling about an EMERGENCY, but to hear him rationalize his Big-Brother attitude on Dateline was over the top. This guy now regrets that he didnt realize who Josh Powell was, AS IF A PERPETRATOR HAS TO BE FAMOUS BEFORE HE WILL ACTUALLY SEND THE POLICE!!! Then he says that even if he had sent the police right away, the police would have called for backup before they actually did anything. OUTRAGEOUS!!! So now he is going to decide if its too late for the police to help, before he bothers to send them! Not only should Lovrak be fired, but the people who supervise him and the people who hired him should all be fired. No telling how many other 911 Dispatchers have Mr. Lovrak’s attitude, so its time to clean house.

  • Anthony Ciarlante February 12, 2012, 8:36 pm

    Wow, he gave the woman such a hard time – She explained more than once that she was the supervisor and that Josh Powell was the visitor. The dispatcher was short with her on this, and on the address issue, and there really was no reason for that.
    What the hell is the point of making the woman get out of her car to look at her license number? Is there going to be more than one light gray 2010 Prius in the driveway? She was safe in the car, and since Powell knew she was there and was clearly being antagonistic, so the supervised visitor could have been in danger.
    Generally, I end up siding with the operator – I know how difficult it is, and how easy it is to make mistakes, and how hindsight is always 20/20 (as he said in the video). But Dave Lovrak made so many mistakes here (like ‘not hearing’ that she smelled gasoline, even though she repeated it), and it’s sad that the caller had more patience than the operator did. So, his only admission is that ‘he didn’t realize the urgency of the situation’, but if he had done his job correctly, he would have understood. In the end, I feel no sympathy for him, and I hope he loses his job.

  • John Linko February 14, 2012, 6:53 am

    I’m focusing more on the up-front and transparent manner with which Pierce County and LESA are dealing with the problem. Laws regarding open records help contribute to this approach.

    It’s been an eye-opener to return to a state that restricts access to 9-1-1 call records from one that allows it, and see the chilling effect on transparency, public awareness, and effective problem mitigation that results.

  • EdyMay February 14, 2012, 5:31 pm

    In my lifetime I have been an EMS volunteer, an RN and the recipient of this type of service for family, friends, neighbors and patients. Sad to say, sometimes even the best efforts don’t turn out as well as any of us would like or anticipate. I wish we could all have 20/20 foresight instead of hindsight. Let’s just keep all of them in our prayers and be thankful that the supervisor and other innocents were not included in the death toll. Sometimes, when a person is intent on destruction, he will succeed no matter what.

  • Mandy February 14, 2012, 11:10 pm

    Lovrack is not an anomally. His arrogance is pretty typical of a civil service employee who has no fear of ever losing his self-preserving union job. Other citizens be damned – my job is more important than your life or that of your children lives. As long as I have my position of power over you I call the shots. Unfortunately, I have had the misfortune of meeting a lot of civil servants with the same bad attitude. He’s very typical of the systemic problem we face in this country which can’t be fixed because the people who supervise them were once in their place, treating citizens the same way. How can government agencies ever be overhauled with a system like that?

  • JoAnne February 17, 2012, 1:50 pm

    Mandy I am sorry that you met someone who didn’t give you the service that you thought you needed. I have been a public employee my ENTIRE career. I have worked in Law Enforcement and for a school district. Let me tell you, I have met employees at MANY different types of businesses that have a bad attitude, but the majority of people I have had the pleasure of working with will go the extra mile to make sure things go well. MR LOVRACK is NOT an example of what “all” civil servants are like. Where do you work? I would love to know that, as you have certainly painted a group with a very large brush. Most 911 dispatchers deal with things that the average citizen will never have to deal with in a lifetime. Please, be a bit more considerate of those who serve.

  • Mark February 22, 2012, 11:14 am

    Being a 911 dispatcher, I can defend the initial loss of 3 or 4 minutes due to the caller not having an exact address. The caller, a person who supervises visits, who just dropped of two children, should have that address readily available.

    However, while cases like this are typically civil matters, it became a matter worthy of investigation once the father would not let the supervisor into the home. Mr. Luvrak continued his line of questioning as if he had nothing better to do; not only did he ask the same questions multiple times, he was unable to understand her role in being the supervisor for the visit, stating at one point, “You can’t supervise yourself.” It is painfully clear what the caller is saying, while clearly distressed, she was a 911 dispatchers dream, not only did she not panic, but was very concise regarding details that warranted investigation.

    I would venture to say that Mr. Luvrak, as an 18 year dispatcher, clearly failed in his obligation and should consider a different career… say, McDonalds? There it won’t matter if you ask, “Do you want fries with that” even if the customer had already stated they did.

    It is obvious that LESA has some serious training issues… get rid of the script and get some people in there that can listen and act accordingly.

  • David September 28, 2013, 1:31 am

    Absolutely UNEXCUSEABLE! As soon as it was evident that the father of these two children rushed them inside and slammed the door shut, in my opinion constitutes A PROBLEM, get law enforcement out there ASAP! This was mishandled from the beginning, I am disgusted!