RACINE — At 2:18 a.m. on Dec. 30, the Racine County Dispatch Center received a 911 phone call from a local man as a tragic series of events began to unfold.
The caller said his girlfriend, 40-year-old Valencia Days, was suicidal and had driven her vehicle into Lake Michigan.
The caller said Days told him her green SUV was floating somewhere along the city’s shore, naming the oasis or North Beach as potential locations. He then gave dispatchers her phone number, urging them to call her.
What happened and didn’t happen in the hour after that call came in has been closely scrutinized and debated, including the fact that the Racine Fire Department left the lakeshore before the county dive team responded and did not put its rescue boat in the water that night.
The Fire Department has since announced it is pulling out of the Racine County Water Response Team, also known as the county dive team, and some officials, including the sheriff, are saying the Fire Department should have done more when it responded to the call.
Filling with water
Less than a minute after receiving the call from the boyfriend, dispatchers called Days. As her car filled with water, she was audibly panicked as she told dispatch she was near Pershing Park and said she feared rescue crews would not get to her in time.
Then the call disconnected.
At 2:24 a.m., the Racine Police Department, Fire Department and Racine County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to Pershing Park to search for Days and her vehicle. At 2:27 a.m., the entire county dive team was called.
According to Racine County dispatch records, at 2:25, the RFD responded to the call. Between 2:28 and 2:31 a.m., RFD personnel arrived at Pershing Park, records show.
- “We are on scene at Pershing Park here and we are not seeing anything. Do you have anything further?”
- “Negative at this time. Her phone died. We are trying to ping the phone at this time.”
At 2:34 a.m., a RFD unit with the department’s boat reports that it is en route. That unit arrives at 2:38 a.m. Six minutes later, the RFD asks for a location update. None is available from dispatch.
Fire crews, as well as squads from the Racine Police Department and Sheriff’s Office search various locations along the lakefront for Days’ vehicle.
Then, at 2:51 a.m., the first RFD unit informs dispatch it is returning to quarters. At 2:53 a.m., records show that the on-duty Fire Department battalion chief calls for all RFD units to return to quarters.
By 3:04 a.m., all RFD units had returned to their respective stations — somewhere between 33 and 36 minutes after initially responding to the call.
“I can say without hesitation and with supreme confidence, if our rescue divers had a general area where the vehicle may have gone into the water, they would have deployed immediately to attempt a rescue,” said Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen, noting his personnel could find not any physical evidence that indicated where a vehicle may have entered the water.
At 3:33 a.m., county dive team members, one of whom was coming from Burlington, had picked up a boat and were en route to Pershing Park. At 3:50 a.m., other dive team members arrived on scene, and deployed a dive boat with sonar equipment to look for the submerged vehicle.
At about 6:49 a.m., Days’ vehicle was found in about 8 feet of water at the Fifth Street Boat Launch. As the sun rose that Sunday morning, the body of Days was brought to the lake’s surface.
The ‘Golden Hour’
Racine County Sheriff’s Office Captain Bradley Friend, co-captain of the dive team, was there when Days was pulled out of the water. Friend, who used a sonar machine on a boat to find Days and her vehicle, said the RFD’s actions on Dec. 30 were unacceptable.
“The Racine Fire Department elected to leave the scene and return to quarters after 36 minutes of land-based searching and did not wait to confer with any incoming Racine County Dive Team units,” Friend said. “If someone had spotted the submerged vehicle within this ‘Golden Hour,’ the Racine Fire Department would have had to be re-dispatched, wasting precious time that may have affected a rescue rather than a recovery.”
The “Golden Hour” refers to the time immediately following a traumatic injury or incident in which medical intervention may save a person.
Friend and other officials, including Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, Kansasville Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Remer and South Shore Fire Department Chief Bob Stedman, argue that the RFD did not spend enough time searching and left prematurely without utilizing their resources.
“I’m angered and disappointed with the Racine Fire and Rescue’s decision to abort after just 34 minutes when it was abundantly clear a life was at stake,” Schmaling said. “This is completely unacceptable. The Days family and all citizens of Racine County expect and deserve better!”
The incident has left many questions for Friend, and others in the first-responder community.
“Why did they not launch their boat and deploy sonar assets to search for the vehicle?” asked Friend. “If they had taken the same information we did and acted on it, there is a chance that they too would have found the vehicle within the ‘Golden Hour’ of potential rescue. Instead, they chose to not utilize a vital piece of equipment they possessed.”
Hansen reiterated that the RFD was not given an exact location to search, making it difficult to determine where Days’ vehicle entered the water. He also noted that it was dark, and said his department looked at the water and shoreline for signs of where a vehicle may have entered the water and checked to see if they could see a vehicle in the water before leaving the scene.
“It is exceptionally easy in hindsight based on where the vehicle was actually found to say we should have started in the Fifth Street Boat ramp,” Hansen said. “Even when the sheriff’s boat started searching with their sonar, they did not immediately find the vehicle.”
Hansen also said that the safety of his department personnel was also a factor to consider in the incident.
“In a risk management scenario, after a certain period of time, as public safety officials, we must weigh the value of risking the lives of the living (firefighters, paramedics and divers) for a tragically deceased individual with no known location at night on a dark lakefront and in zero-visibility water,” Hansen said.
On Tuesday, The Journal Times received a copy of an email from South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman addressed to Hansen.
The email, which Stedman admits he wrote but did not provide to the newspaper, mentions the RFD withdrawing from the Racine County dive team as of July 1. The email implies that the events of Dec. 30 may have been a motivating factor.
Many local fire chiefs, as well as Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave, are copied on Stedman’s email, which alleges that Hansen blamed the recovery of Days on dispatchers and the county dive team.
“...instead of blasting dispatch and the RCWRRT (dive team), and even more importantly, dividing the paid departments from the volunteer fire departments, take some ownership from what the RFD did or did not do that night of the drowning,” Stedman writes in the email. “Make it a learning experience, as we all have and need them!”
Hansen argues that while he did question dispatch officials as to why the call came in as a life-support call and not a drowning, he denies blaming the incident on dispatch. While the RFD and Racine County Communications Center don’t always agree, he says, they have a “professional and appropriate relationship.”
Dispatch records do not indicate any argument between RFD officials and dispatch during the night in question.
“It should be stated emphatically that the Racine County Communications Center did an outstanding job under the most trying of conditions to help facilitate a rescue,” Hansen said. “This was a highly emotional situation the calls takers and dispatchers were under and their skill and training during the incident is a reflection of their exceptional professionalism.”
Friend says he was present during a January post-incident meeting and said that Hansen was critical of dispatch during that meeting.
Dive team withdrawal
The Racine Fire Department has been a member of the Racine County Dive Team since 2004, but that partnership will soon end. Hansen announced the withdrawal in a Jan. 30 letter to Remer, who co-chairs the county dive team with Friend.
“Unfortunately, we have reached a point in time where there are significant operational and philosophical differences between our agency and the RCWRRT (Racine County Water Response Team),” the letter states.
Friend and Remer both say that Hansen and the RFD have never fully participated in the dive team. “We don’t work as a one-man band, we work as a team. He (Hansen) criticizes, ridicules and constantly tries to change things,” Remer said.
Friend said the RFD does not take part in the Racine County dive team Board of Directors, monthly meetings and training exercises nor does it take interest in the dive team’s planning or policy-making.
“Chief Hansen’s team operates in isolation, unwilling to work as a unified team or admit that there may be a time that they do not have the personnel, training to equipment to conduct an operation,” Friend said.
In his letter, Hansen lays out differences with the dive team. Hansen takes issue with the fact that joint dispatch puts out a call for the entire dive team for all water-related emergencies in the county, something he views as unnecessary.
“The fire chief or incident commander in the jurisdiction where the water-related incident was occurring was, and is, in the best position to determine what additional resources, other than the Sheriff’s Office, should be called,” Hansen said.
Secondly, Hansen believes the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), which allows first responders to call for assistance from other departments when they have exhausted all their own resources or are in need of specialized equipment or personnel, should be used when dealing with water-related emergencies.
MABAS is a multi-state mutual-aid system used in nearly every county in Wisconsin.
Without using the MABAS system, Hansen said, the city is liable for injuries of outside personnel who respond to assist on a call.
“One of my ongoing concerns as fire chief is the liability exposure for the city by responding to or receiving help from other fire departments without a formal intergovernmental agreement (like MABAS) in place.”
Friend contends that the Dive Team is a part of MABAS Division 102, which encompasses Racine County, and says that the team’s bylaws protect each jurisdiction’s liability.
“Chief Hansen feels his team can handle any incidents in his local jurisdiction and feels that additional support from incoming agencies who are part of the Racine County Dive Team are unmanageable and a waste of resources,” Friend said. “This call on Dec. 30 proved his justification wrong.”
After they withdraw, Hansen said the RFD would still respond to water calls throughout the county when requested.
“The Racine Fire Department, with all its significant water rescue response resources and 28-plus certified open water, ice rescue and swift water certified divers are more than happy and willing to continue responding to any community in the county and on any inter-divisional response at the MABAS Box Alarm level or greater (standardized-tiered response),” Hansen said. Inter-divisional refers to responses from outside the county.
Remer, Friend and Schmaling said that the rest of the dive team will continue to work well together, even after the RFD withdraws.
“As commander of the Sheriff’s Office Dive Team of 15 very competent individuals, I am reliant on the professionalism, skills and equipment of other agencies that make up our county-wide Dive Team,” Friend said. “We train as a team, we function as a team and we respond as a team.”
“I can say without hesitation and with supreme confidence, if our rescue divers had a general area where the vehicle may have gone into the water, they would have deployed immediately to attempt a rescue.” Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen
“I’m angered and disappointed with the Racine Fire and Rescue’s decision to abort after just 34 minutes when it was abundantly clear a life was at stake.” Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling