Last week's Video Vault examined the 1991 industrial accident at a local factory named Pioneer Chlor Alkali, where tons of toxic gas were released into the atmosphere, resulting in more than 300 medical complaints.
In the days that followed, some of the attention shifted to the way the matter was first handled by fire department dispatchers in both Las Vegas and Henderson. As is standard practice, all of the 911 calls were recorded.
When the media obtained copies of the first exchanges, many in the community were not happy with the way it was handled.
"Hello," started a Henderson dispatcher.
"Good morning, how are you?" responded her male Las Vegas counterpart.
"Just peachy until the last phone call."
"I don't want to hear it. Keep it to yourself."
"Well, I could have let you talk to the dips--t."
The conversation continued in this slightly flirtatious vein, even as a cloud of chlorine gas leaked and settled over Henderson.
"What have we got?" asked the man from Las Vegas with a laugh.
"You would pass," responded the Henderson dispatcher.
"I'll pass. We talk to enough dips--ts as it is."
"See how you are?"
They both ended that portion of the conversation with a laugh. When the recordings were made public a few days later, Las Vegas Fire Department Chief Clell West was livid.
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"So my main concern is reaction of the citizens," West told News 3. "Do they...is this the way that they feel that we deal with them? It certainly is not! And that's my main concern. Getting that information to the citizens of this community. That is not the way we view them."
News 3 sent a crew down to observe operations at Las Vegas Fire Department Dispatch.
"I have a report of a male subject that's fallen," one dispatcher could be heard reporting. "Has a head injury."
"Dispatchers are used to defending their job because they play the role of middle man between the public and the Fire Department," said News 3's Tonia Ellis. "They say if there's a problem, both sides often point the finger at them. But at the same time, they know every time the phone rings, there's a potential for a life to be put in their hands."
All of that seems intuitive, but it did not square with the communications recorded on the night of the chlorine leak.
"Well that's just wonderful," laughed the Henderson dispatcher, continuing the conversation in the pre-dawn hours of May 6, 1991. "I had this bimbo say that she was going down 95 between Sunset and Lake Mead and said there was something so ghastly coming out of Kerr-McGee it made her lose her breath."
"Mmm-hmm," responded the disinterested Las Vegas dispatcher.
"Our city is embarrassed," a Las Vegas Fire Department dispatch supervisor told News 3 a few days later. "As dispatchers, we're embarrassed. But I hate to see anyone fired. No, I don't want to see anyone fired. Not her, not him, anyone."
By that time, the story was getting national attention. Something had to give. It fell to Henderson City Manager Phil Speight to take action.
"Well, I had to balance the factors primarily on her past performance for the city, and had her entire personnel file to look at," Speight told media members on May 13, 1991. "I weighed those good and bad points and looked at all the issues involved, as well as her progressive disciplinary actions. And based upon her previous record, this was the decision I upheld.”
In the end, one Henderson dispatcher was fired and one from Las Vegas was disciplined. Communications became much more professional after that.
These days, more than ever, it is wise to assume everything is being recorded.