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911 allegedly hung up on man engulfed by fire because he didn't speak English. He died.

White employees reportedly refused to use translation services at their disposal which led to the tragedy, states lawsuit.

911 allegedly hung up on man engulfed by fire because he didn't speak English. He died.
Image source: Hand holding cell phone with emergency number 911 on black background - stock photo/Getty Images

A man and his 14-year-old nephew died in a fire after their 911 dispatcher hung up on them because they didn't speak English, according to a lawsuit. It wasn't just that the dispatcher hung up but that they refused to use the translation services at their disposal to help the man in dire need of help. The incident reportedly happened at Allentown, Pennsylvania, when a Spanish-speaking man called Lehigh County’s 911 center seeking help as a fire broke out in his home. The dispatcher reportedly told him to speak English as he begged for help. The dispatcher then hung up for the call, according to a federal lawsuit filed by seven of the center’s former employees this week, reported Vice News. 

Professional team business call center operator in the office. Service support, Customer service support, Help desk concept./Getty Images


Ex-dispatch workers filed a lawsuit stating that they “complained to county supervisors that the 911 center was a hostile environment to callers who were minorities and were not fluent in the English language, especially Latinos/Hispanic callers,” which they alleged were violations of the former employees’ First and 14th Amendment rights. The ex-dispatchers’ named Lehigh County and several current and former county officials as defendants.

Firefighter using a walkie-talkie, emergency call; all logos removed. Slovenia, Europe/Getty Images


The ex-dispatchers’ made it clear in their lawsuit complaint that it was their white co-workers who often refused to engage with Spanish-speaking residents making emergency calls. The lawsuit filed on Wednesday states that Latino callers were forced to speak English or faced with being denied help. The ex-dispatchers’ claimed that certain employees refused to use translation services they had at their disposal, denying people the help they desperately needed. 

However, the complaint is not limited to just racism but alleges a culture of incompetence at the 911 center in Lehigh County. The employees said they faced retaliation for speaking out. The ex-employees laid out a series of complaints and among them was a supervisor who watched soap operas and sold nail polish on the job, and one employee sleeping during his shifts leading to “countless calls going unanswered.” They ex-dispatchers' also alleged that 911 dispatchers would play cornhole during work hours, leading to  “delays and missed emergency calls, including police calls, fire calls and calls involving life-threatening situations,” according to the lawsuit. They also claimed that Allentown’s digital radio system was not fully functioning which led to some 911 dispatchers not monitoring the “fire ground” channels. 

Apartment complex on fire/Getty Images


The service was allegedly so bad that local police and fire staff have allegedly complained of “unnecessary delays in the dispatch of emergency calls.” The dispatchers' made it clear that they raised grievances with their county supervisors. One of the workers publicly stated at a town hall meeting in December 2019 that he was concerned about the county’s safety, accusing the administration and supervisors of “negligently and recklessly overseeing the operation of the 911 center.”


The lawsuit states that county officials were left “embarrassed and infuriated,” which led to them allegedly targeting the dispatchers and leading to them losing their jobs. A longtime administrator and supervisor allegedly said they had received permission from the county’s director of emergency services to make coquito mixed drinks for a single toast during a December 31 shift. However, the ex-dispatchers were fired or forced to resign for participating in the toast, when they drank an eggnog mix with “a minuscule amount of alcohol." They alleged that supervisors had drunk and distributed alcohol on county property but they were targeted for raising complaints of racism and incompetence.



The lawsuit alleges that current and former county officials named as defendants “improperly and unlawfully acted to impart unwarranted and unwelcome discipline to plaintiffs in retaliation for plaintiffs’ exercising their well-established First Amendment rights of freedom of speech as citizens on matters of public concern,” the complaint states. They are seeking compensatory damages of at least $150,000 for each of the seven ex-workers as well as back pay and the resumption of their employment, among other demands. 

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