Lehigh County

911 Dispatcher Hung Up on Spanish-Speaking Caller Who Later Died, Lawsuit Claims

A lawsuit filed by seven former dispatchers, who claim they were unjustly treated on the job and forced to resign, alleges that the culture inside the 911 call center was hostile toward Spanish-speaking callers. In one instance, they claim, a dispatcher hung up on a man who died in a fire.

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A lawsuit was filed against a Lehigh Valley 911 center. Former dispatchers accused operators of hanging up on Spanish-speaking callers. NBC10’s Steven Fisher gets a response from county leaders who denied the allegations.

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A federal lawsuit filed against Lehigh County and supervisors of the county's 911 call center alleges that seven dispatchers were mistreated, to the point of being forced to resign, and that the culture at the workplace was biased against Spanish-speaking callers.

The most serious accusation alleges that a 911 dispatcher hung up on a Spanish-speaking man who later died, along with his nephew, in a fire in 2020.

A county official disputed the allegations on Monday, but declined to release publichly the 911 call highlighted in the lawsuit. County Executive Phil Armstrong said he personally listened to 911 calls involving a July 2020 fire that killed Heriberto Santiago Jr. and his nephew.

Santiago, according to the lawsuit, "... in his native Spanish language, attempted to notify the 911 dispatcher of the fire and his need for emergency assistance."

The dispatcher who answered the call, according to the lawsuit, allegedly "indicated that she did not understand the Spanish language, told Mr. Santiago to speak English and hung up on Mr. Santiago."

Armstrong told NBC10 "there has been no recorded evidence that has happened."

"The first (call) came in from a neighbor. Within 3 minutes of the beginning of that call, sirens were rolling up on the fire," Armstrong said of the 911 calls he listened to involving the fatal fire. "Another call came up from the person in the building. His call lasted a little over a minute and he spoke perfect English."

One of the plaintiffs declined to comment on the lawsuit when reached by NBC10, and said other plaintiffs would also have no comment.

The allegations in the lawsuit claim that supervisors and managers mistreated the plaintiffs, and misled them to believe that resigning following allegations of drinking alcohol for a New Year's toast would allow them to re-apply for their jobs.

Rick Molchany, Lehigh County's director of special services, who is among the defendants named in the lawsuit, fired 10 employees in January 2020 after the dispatch employees allegedly drank during the toast on Dec. 31, 2019.

Lehigh County Commissioner Dan Hartzell said at the time that the toast sounded innocuous to him, but he understood and respected the decision made by the administration.

“It was a clear violation of county policy,” Hartzell said. “It was determined we cannot let this become a slippery slope.”

In addition to the claims of mistreatment of employees and improper handling of 911 calls from Spanish-speaking residents, the lawsuit also alleges that supervisors and dispatchers openly showed bias toward Latino callers.

"Administrators, supervisors and dispatchers from Defendant County referred to people of Latino/Hispanic descent as 'you people,'" according to one claim.

In another claim, the lawsuit states, "Caucasian 9-1-1 dispatchers stated openly that they 'do not like taking calls from Spanish people' and refused to use a 'language
line' translation service to assist them in communicating with Spanish speaking residents."

Armstrong, the county executive, told NBC10 that the county has opened an investigation into those claims.

"We are looking into everything," Armstrong said. "If anyone makes an accusation we were going to look into it."