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.
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.”