A Luzerne County 911 call taker may have kept her job if she hadn’t missed a second warning flag that emergency crews were headed to the wrong municipality in a May 15 fatal blaze, officials said.
Two well-placed county officials familiar with the matter agreed to outline key details to show the tragedy stemmed mainly from an employee not following protocol, as opposed to a flaw with the 911 system.
The officials provided identical accounts Friday, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter could end up in litigation if fire victim Michelle Ann Dzoch’s family sues, although county officials have not been informed of any expected litigation.
According to the sources:
Dzoch was standing outside her home when she reported the fire from her cell phone and identified her location as Mocanaqua.
When callers name a neighborhood like Mocanaqua instead of one of the county’s 76 municipalities, the 911 workers are supposed to press for details. Dzoch said she was on Main Street in Conyngham Borough instead of her actual location, which was in Conyngham Township.
The county 911 center’s protocol instructs dispatchers to summon crews to both municipalities if there’s suspicion of uncertainty, but crews were sent only to the borough in this situation.
The cell phone call with Dzoch apparently was too brief to track an accurate Global Positioning System (GPS) address of her location. The address records from phone companies also are less accurate for cell phones than traditional land line phones tied to specific structures.
However, the fire’s location in Conyngham Township should have become clear to the 911 call taker moments later when a land line call came in reporting the blaze. The land line phone showed an address in the township, not the borough.
Land line call
Syl Rutkoski, owner of B&S Distributor LLC, which is located next to Dzoch’s residence, said Friday that his son reported the fire to 911 from a land line phone at the business.
Rutkoski said his son then moved his vehicle parked near the fire scene and called him to alert him to the fire. Rutkoski said he was about 10 minutes away and hurried to the business, but firefighters had not yet arrived.
“Everybody makes mistakes, and maybe it wasn’t clear, but they should let the public review these phone calls,” Rutkoski said.
The county has refused to provide audio recordings of 911 calls, citing a section of the state’s Right to Know Law exempting such recordings from public release. The county would require a court order or subpoena for a pending litigation case to release the recordings, county lawyers have said.
Dispatch logs released by the county indicate firefighters were sent to Main Street in Conyngham Borough, which is in the Hazleton area, at 10:47 a.m. on May 15. That is about 14 miles from the scene of the fire.
A dispatch to the correct address on Main Street in the Mocanaqua section of Conyngham Township near Shickshinny was issued five minutes later at 10:53 a.m., records show.
County officials suspended two 911 employees without pay amid an investigation into the emergency call center’s handling of the fire call, but only one was terminated. The terminated employee did have experience, the sources said.
County Manager Robert Lawton, Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri and 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans have declined comment, saying the matter is a confidential personnel issue.
A countywide personnel update released by Lawton Tuesday says a 911 telecommunicator was terminated on June 3 but does not identify the worker. The name is expected to be stated on the regular monthly personnel report released in early July because the county always identifies terminated employees in these reports.
Cause of deadly fire
Police said the fire at a Main Street home in the township’s Mocanaqua section was caused by children playing with a lighter.
County Coroner William Lisman ruled Dzoch’s death was accidental and caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. He has said he cannot pinpoint the exact time of death or determine if summoning crews five minutes earlier would have made a difference.
The property was heavily damaged by the time Dzoch’s remains were accessible for examination.
It’s unclear why Dzoch decided to go back inside her home after reporting the fire.
County Councilwoman Kathy Dobash sent Rosencrans an email Friday requesting an update on the matter at the next council work session, saying officials must “get to the real root cause.”
“The public has a right to know whether it was the training, procedure, employee error or a combination of reasons,” she wrote.