Pa. county: 'Emergency services are not a right' in response to lawsuit

A 911 dispatcher sent firefighters to the wrong address; a woman at the home was found dead and the county's defense attorney argues emergency services are not a constitutional right that residents are entitled to

By James O'Malley
The Times-Leader 

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — An attorney for Michelle Dzoch’s estate says Luzerne County 911 violated the woman’s constitutional rights when it dispatched firefighters to the wrong address.

The county says the constitution does not provide for a right to emergency services.

A judge now must decide if a lawsuit against Luzerne County can proceed in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Richard A. Caputo on Tuesday heard arguments from both sides on a defense motion to dismiss the suit and, according to a staff member from his office, will issue an order with his decision.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, stems from Dzoch’s death in a May 15 house fire.

According to attorney Bill Anzalone, Holly Dzoch called 911 at 10:46 a.m. to report a fire in her sister’s home at 76 Main Street, began saying “Moc” as in Mocanaqua, and mistakenly reported that the home was in Conyngham Borough.

The Mocanaqua residence in reality was located miles away in Conyngham Township.

However, after advising Dzoch that anyone inside should immediately vacate the residence, the dispatcher sent emergency crews to the non-existent Conyngham Borough address, Anzalone said Wednesday.

Despite subsequent calls offering a correct location, he said, the dispatcher neglected to correct the error for several minutes. Michelle Dzoch is alleged to have perished in the fire as a result.

Dzoch was pronounced dead at the scene, her body found on the second floor, where the roof had collapsed. County Coroner William Lisman ruled Dzoch’s death as accidental, caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is unknown why Dzoch did not leave the home.

Anzalone said the dispatcher should have done more to verify the location in the first place, but added that Dzoch’s rights were violatied because emergency calls in Luzerne County must be directed to 911.

“911 dropped the ball,” Anzalone told the Times Leader. “In Luzerne County, you don’t have a choice. When you have an emergency such as a fire, you call 911.”

Anzalone argues that 911’s failure constitutes “state-created danger” and violates a right to “bodily integrity” guaranteed by a due process clause of the constitution. The same law is invoked in cases of police brutality and prison abuse, he said.

According to Anzalone, plaintiffs in a recent Northumberland County case sought damages from a nearly identical stance, but the case was dismissed because the county does not require 911 handle all emergency calls.

David Heisler, an attorney representing Luzerne County, has countered in court papers that 911’s alleged actions do not rise to the level of a constitutional rights violation.

In one document, Heisler cites a U.S. District Court decision which states in part that “a citizen not in state custody has no constitutional entitlement to rescue services.”

A message left with Heisler on Wednesday was not immediately returned.


©2015 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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