Calls show residents panicked over Colo. wildfire

Wednesday , April 04, 2012 - 9:11 AM

Rema Rahman

DENVER — Sam Lucas was among the first to begin calling 911 about a wildfire burning near his home on the outskirts of Denver.

But the dispatcher, having already answered a handful of calls about the fire, cut Lucas off to tell him it was a controlled burn and that the forest service was on the scene.

“We got 79-mile-an-hour winds out there and they got a controlled burn?” Lucas said on the 911 call, one of 130 calls over a total of 10 hours that were released Tuesday.

When the dispatcher says yes, he replies “Oh wonderful. Thank you.”

Lucas hung up, and within an hour, he and his wife were dead.

The 911 calls from March 26 raised further questions about emergency officials’ response to last week’s fast-growing fire, which authorities believe killed three people, damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes and burned 6 square miles in the mountains southwest of Denver.

Residents began calling to express concern about the fire and high winds around 2 p.m., and at first dispatchers assured them the heavy smoke and flames weren’t a threat. Later they acknowledged that there was some trouble with a prescribed burn but told callers that firefighters were at the scene.

Jefferson County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said sheriff’s officials were aware the controlled burn had broken its perimeter that afternoon but she said the agency didn’t know the fire had gotten out of control until a local fire department sent a notification at 5 p.m. She said that’s when a firefighter first made a suggestion for evacuations.

“We have to listen to what groups in the field are telling us,” Kelley said of why evacuations weren’t called earlier. “If they’re saying there’s a controlled burn and the state forest service is on the scene, we don’t just create evacuations for a fire that has gone outside the perimeter.”

Residents in the mountains are particularly sensitive to smoke in the air, and it wasn’t unusual for dispatchers to receive calls about seeing smoke from the controlled burn, Kelley said. The dispatchers’ messages to callers changed as the situation changed, she said.

A neighbor has said Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda, 76, were packed and ready to go if they got orders to evacuate. Authorities say they did eventually get one but it’s not clear when.

A friend concerned about the third person who apparently died in the fire also called to ask authorities to check on Ann Appel because she was getting chemotherapy and her husband was out of state. However, that call seems to have come after it was too late to help her.

“She’s a little sickly. We have no idea if anybody even knows she’s there,” the caller said. “We know the fire went through her property because we were able to get ahold of the neighbor.”

The caller said Appel — who didn’t get an evacuation notice — wasn’t answering her phone. Meanwhile, authorities say evacuation orders were sent in error to homes that weren’t in the fire’s path.

“She had her stuff to leave. The car had a flat tire,” the caller said.

The dispatcher took Appel’s number and address and said, “We’ll get someone out there to make sure she got out, OK?”

Searchers found human remains in Appel’s burned-out home on Saturday.

“The information at the time was we had a controlled burn, and fire agencies were on scene,” said Jefferson County sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer. “In law enforcement, you want to minimize radio traffic. There would be no reason to air out something that’s already common knowledge.”

He said the dispatchers weren’t giving interviews about what happened.

The fire appears to have been sparked by a controlled burn set four days earlier by the Colorado State Forest Service, which says embers escaped from the burn sometime on the afternoon of March 26. A review of what happened has been ordered by the governor.

The first wave of automated calls ordering residents to evacuate was sent at 5:05 p.m. but they went to the wrong list of phone numbers, Techmeyer said.

“It was way too large geographically,” he said, adding that he had no other details. “That was a user error on our end.”

That call was halted, and a new round of calls was started at 5:23 p.m., he said.

The 911 recordings show that that initial bad round of notifications caused even more confusion in the dispatch center.

Calls from people who wrongly got evacuation notices are mixed with more residents calling to report smoke and fire nearby. Dispatchers appear to become increasingly overwhelmed while fielding so many types of calls back-to-back.

Simultaneously, residents who were under mandatory evacuation called dispatchers to find out if they had to leave their homes. Some of those people do not indicate they received evacuation notices before calling 911 themselves.

A caller named Neal Biller on Sunburst Drive told a dispatcher he didn’t get an evacuation call but a neighbor did.

The dispatcher said he didn’t need to evacuate if he didn’t get a call, but Biller asked her to look up his address.

A few seconds later the dispatcher said, “OK, yeah, it looks like on Sunburst you are to evacuate, so yes, do evacuate.”

“Wow. Really?” Biller said.

“I wonder why you didn’t get the call?” the dispatcher asked.

“Well I’m glad I called,” Biller said.

Some dispatchers did urge people to err on the side of caution and evacuate if they felt they were in danger.

FirstCall Network Inc., which provides the county’s automated phone call system, said the first round of calls went to anyone who had signed up for the service on a county website, whether or not they lived in the evacuation area.

FirstCall logged slightly different times for the erroneous call — 4:50 p.m. — and for the start of the second round of calls, 5:16 p.m.

FirstCall’s president, Matthew Teague, said the corrected calls went to 1,089 phone numbers in six waves, the last one starting at 9:14 p.m.

Teague said 12 busy signals were detected and 32 calls weren’t answered. Another 90 calls went to numbers that had been disconnected or were not set up to receive voice calls. In each case, the system made three attempts to call those numbers, he said.

Intermountain Rural Electric Association, which provides power to the area, cut off the electricity at about 8 p.m., spokesman Mike Kopp said.

That could have rendered some phones inoperable, but residents with cellphones still could get the evacuation order, Techmeyer said.

A March 12, 2012, photo shows trucks parked outside the headquarters of CRST Van Expedited, Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dozens of female employees at CRST, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, say they experienced aggressive sexual harassment by male drivers during training rides, but their legal claims have been dismissed because of missteps by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigators. (AP Photo/Ryan J. Foley)

Trucker harassment class-action suit backfires

Ryan J. Foley

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — They were learning to become truck drivers but wound up in a nightmare. In detailed accounts to a federal agency, dozens of female employees of one of the nation’s largest trucking companies told of being propositioned, groped and even assaulted by male drivers during cross-country training rides.

“I was beaten, I was fondled, I was humiliated and I was taught nothing,” one trainee, Ramona Villareal, said in a deposition.

But rather than leading to a workplace discrimination judgment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based CRST Van Expedited Inc., has backfired and put the agency on trial. The agency is coping with a court ruling that could make it harder and more expensive to pursue large discrimination cases against companies in the Midwest, if not nationwide.

And dozens of women who described an ordeal of unwanted and aggressive sexual conduct may receive no compensation for lost wages or emotional distress because of judicial criticism of the agency’s investigation.

A February ruling in the case sets a new standard for workplace class-action lawsuits in the federal court district that includes Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Before filing a lawsuit on behalf of employees alleging similar discrimination, the agency will first have to investigate the merits of every worker’s claim and attempt to reach settlements. If the agency doesn’t, EEOC risks having the case dismissed.

The agency has argued that such a standard is impractical in cases involving hundreds or thousands of potential victims. At a minimum, the agency says, investigations would take longer and delay relief compared to other regions, where class-action cases can be filed with a lower standard. EEOC has a deadline next week to determine whether to appeal.

“We are an agency with limited resources already, and this is something that, if it stands, would make it even more challenging for us to address and vindicate discriminatory violations in the 8th Circuit,” EEOC general counsel P. David Lopez told The Associated Press.

But businesses say the ruling could stop unfair legal tactics and prevent unnecessary and expensive litigation.

“It’s incredibly significant,” said Chicago lawyer Gerald Maatman Jr., who represents companies sued by the EEOC. “It is a signal by the federal courts that the tactics the EEOC has been using over the last several years may be improper.”

The ruling came as the agency has made systemic discrimination cases — those involving many employees — a larger enforcement priority. EEOC investigates 100,000 complaints of workplace discrimination annually, and recovered more than $450 million for employees last year.

The agency’s tactics have rattled the business community, which says lawsuits can cost millions of dollars and destroy reputations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the CRST case denouncing EEOC’s tactics and calling for the agency to be more cooperative with industry.

The trucking company case was prompted by a December 2005 complaint from driver Monika Starke, of Azle, Texas, who alleged she was paired with a driver who constantly made crude sexual remarks and advances. After she escaped his truck, she said, she was paired with another driver who demanded sex in exchange for a passing grade.

After failing to reach a settlement for Starke, EEOC filed a lawsuit in 2007 on behalf of all female drivers subjected to “a sexually hostile and offensive work environment.” After the company sent letters to thousands of female employees, about 150 gave depositions in which they described being alone for weeks in trucks with male drivers.

One woman said her trainer asked for oral sex every morning and told her if she slept with him she’d certainly pass. Another testified that her trainer put on pornographic movies daily and told her he wanted her to perform similar acts. “And he never let me go a day without telling me that he controlled me passing or failing,” Yvonne Fortner testified.

But some of their claims were barred for a variety of legal reasons. And EEOC’s tactics infuriated Judge Linda Reade, who said the agency used “a ‘sue first, ask questions later’ litigation strategy.” She dismissed the case and ordered the agency to pay CRST an unprecedented $4.4 million in attorney’s fees, acknowledging “dozens of potentially meritorious sexual harassment claims may now never see the inside of a courtroom.”

The appeals court largely sided with her in a 2-1 ruling, but threw out the fee award and reinstated two claims: Starke’s and one filed by a woman who said her trainer repeatedly entered the cab wearing only his underwear. The court ruled that EEOC should have done more investigation and informal mediation before filing suit.

CRST is expected to renew its request for compensation for legal fees. The company said it took disciplinary action such as banning offenders from riding with females.

“We think it was a very favorable decision,” said CRST General Counsel Eric Baker. “We certainly believe in all instances we took those matters seriously. We do believe that we will be exonerated.”

But one case that reached a jury — a California woman who opted out of the EEOC process and filed her own lawsuit — resulted in a $1.5 million verdict against the company.

“It’s a tragedy what happened,” said Cedar Rapids attorney Matt Reilly, who has represented women in the case. “The sad thing about this is, the merits haven’t been an issue for so long. The appeal was about technicalities.”

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