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Wed February 8, 2012
Agency will investigate 911 call in Powell fire
TACOMA, Wash. — A social worker pleaded with a 911 dispatcher throughout a nearly seven-minute call to quickly get police to Josh Powell's house after he locked himself inside with his two sons.
(The un-edited audio of that 911 call is posted above.)
But the dispatcher seemed to have trouble understanding the seriousness of the situation. It took almost two minutes from the start of the call for the dispatcher to learn Powell's address, as the social worker fumbled through paperwork, and more than three minutes to understand that she was there to supervise a child custody visit. Near the end of the call, she asked how long before officers could get there.
The agency that runs the call center said it would review the matter and start a disciplinary investigation if necessary.
"I don't know, ma'am," he said. "We have to respond to emergency life-threatening situations first."
She responded: "This could be life-threatening ... I'm afraid for their lives!"
Emergency response questioned
Authorities said the call could have been handled better, and that it was unfortunate for the dispatcher to leave the social worker with the impression no help was immediately on the way.
Still, the recordings raised questions about an emergency response to a custody visit that ended with Powell killing himself and his boys.
Pierce County Sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said deputies appeared to have been dispatched during the call, and he did not believe the conversation caused unnecessary delays.
"Are we unhappy with the etiquette and the manner? Yes," Troyer said. "Did it affect the response time? No. Dispatchers are typing information and addresses while they're on the phone with callers."
Troyer said his department is waiting for a copy of the "call-and-dispatch" log from the 911 center to see exactly how long it took for deputies to respond.
The phone call
The details of the emergency calls emerged in audio recordings released by the sheriff's office late Tuesday. They did not include time stamps, and the call center did not immediately respond to a public records request from The Associated Press for the dispatch log.
The social worker had driven the Powell boys, 5 and 7, from their grandparents' home to their father's house on Sunday. Josh Powell had lost custody of the boys last fall, after his father, with whom they lived, was arrested in a child pornography and voyeurism investigation.
When she arrived, the boys ran into the house, and Powell slammed the door in her face, locking it.
She called her supervisor and 911 using her cell phone, reaching the call center in Tacoma about 10 miles away from Powell's house just outside Puyallup, authorities said.
In the first minutes of her first 911 call, the woman quickly laid out the situation:
"Something really weird has happened. The kids went into the house and the parent — the biological parent — whose name is Josh Powell will not let me in the door. What should I do? ... I could hear one of the kids crying, and he still wouldn't let me in."
Nearly 20 seconds into the call, the dispatcher asked her for the address. The social worker didn't know and needed to look for it. It took her about 90 seconds to find it in her car.
At one point, she asked, "You can't find me by GPS?"
He responded: "No." And then there was a pause of approximately 10 seconds.
Pierce County, the second largest in the state and home to about 800,000 people, has an enhanced 911 system that is designed to give police an approximate location of the cell phone caller. It wasn't immediately clear if the call center used that feature to locate the social worker.
While she was still looking for the address, she said, "But I think I need help right away."
The dispatcher proceeded to question her repeatedly about who she was and her role.
- "Who is there to exercise the visitation?" he asked.
- "I am," she said. "The visit is with Josh Powell. And he's the husband of ..."
- "And who's supervising?" he asked.
- "I supervise."
- "So you supervise and you're doing the visit? You supervise yourself?" he asked.
- "I supervise myself. I'm the supervisor here."
- "Wait a minute. If it's a supervised visit, you can't supervise yourself if you're the visitor."
After getting it straight, the dispatcher told her: "We'll have somebody look for you there."
"OK, how long will it be?" the woman asked.
That's when the dispatcher responded by saying he didn't know.
Moments later, the house erupted in flames.
The woman screamed in a separate call: "He exploded the house!"
Authorities also released a 911 call Josh Powell's sister made Sunday, saying she received emails from her brother explaining what to do with his property and saying he couldn't live without his sons.
Alina Powell told a dispatcher she feared her brother was going to do something because of pressure he faced after his wife, Susan, disappeared two years ago in Utah. Authorities considered him a "person of interest" in the case.
Crying, Alina Powell told the dispatcher: "I'm terrified to drive over there. I'm not afraid of him. He's never hurt me. I'm afraid of seeing something I don't want to see."