On June 4, first responders arrived too late to save a drowning 16-year-old in the Potomac River, reported WTOP News. Now, the reason for the delay is under investigation, putting a series of transferred 911 calls, confusion over the victim’s location, and a decades-old policy on emergency agency jurisdiction under the microscope.
In a Loudoun County Board of Supervisors meeting on September 1, a 77-page report — jointly conducted by the fire and rescue departments of Loudoun County, VA and Montgomery County, MD — revealed operational and technological shortcomings that lead to the death of Fitz Thomas. The teenager was swimming with friends, who placed emergency calls from cell phones received by operators in both Loudoun and Montgomery counties. Loudoun County Fire Chief Keith Johnson said efforts were hampered by technical issues, difficulty ascertaining the teen’s location and a long-standing response protocol.
The victim’s mother, Pastor Michelle Thomas, who is the president of the local NAACP, made an impassioned speech, indicating her son’s death was racially motivated. “For 22 minutes, 1,320 seconds, Loudoun County had their foot on Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas’s neck,” Thomas said. “All you had to do is come with some urgency like it was your child, all you had to do is not be lazy that day.”
Board Chair Phyllis Randall, an African American woman, who said she has known and loved Michelle Thomas for years, addressed the suggestion of a racially motivated slow response, reported WTOP News. “Of all the problems with the call, none … were based on the fact that Fitz Thomas was an African American,” Randall said during the live-streamed meeting. “The truth is, Loudoun County never knew that Fitz Thomas was an African American.”
Since the Potomac is in Maryland, 911 calls for an incident on the river are typically routed to Montgomery County. However, due to the way towers process and route 911 requests, several calls describing a position in Loudoun County, Virginia, were automatically forwarded to Montgomery County’s emergency call center instead.
According to the report, Montgomery County’s first responders were dispatched within three minutes and arrived at the Potomac River about 15 minutes later. Bystanders saw 911 crews operating on the wrong side of the river and attempted to describe the teen’s exact location. A family member had already pulled Thomas’ body out of the water before the first responders arrived.
“While there is no question that the Potomac River is legally owned by the state of Maryland, strict adherence to jurisdictional boundaries does not provide the fast and most efficient response to 911 calls reporting an emergency,” Johnson told the supervisors. Now, when a 911 call is received by Loudoun or Montgomery County’s call centers, “a first responder will be sent on all Potomac River incidents, regardless of where the jurisdictional authority lies.”