The Ontario Provincial Police says it has changed the way it handles certain 911 calls after a review into how police responded the night missing Ontario sailor Reginald Fisher vanished on Lake Erie.
Fisher’s body was found on the shoreline of Lake Erie, 15 days after he went sailing in his boat from Port Glasgow, Ont. on Sept. 17, 2020.
Since his death, a number of people have claimed they saw the missing sailor’s calls for help and reported the distress flares to the OPP and the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ont.; yet, authorities never came to his rescue.
Police and military officials believed the calls were related to a separate incident where a rescue was already underway near Port Bruce, Ont.
The search for Fisher did not actually begin until his boat was reported overdue by the Port Glasgow Marina on Sept 18.
OPP says full review will not be made public
The OPP said once officials realized what had happened, they immediately launched an internal review into the matter.
The investigation was conducted by the OPP’s Communications Technology Service Bureau, which oversees police communications and the agency’s five 911 dispatch centres in the province.
The findings of its investigation were compiled into a report, which will not be made public, the OPP said.
At no time was CBC News able to independently examine or review the document and had to rely on a summary provided by the provincial police service.
“It’s not a public document. It’s an internal document,” said Bill Dickson, the OPP’s acting manager of media relations.
“Because we had committed to the media after the incident that we would be conducting a review and we would release some details, that’s why we are releasing these details at this time.”
OPP promises closer scrutiny of marine-related 911 calls
According to Dickson, the provincial law enforcement agency has changed the way it handles marine-related 911 calls and given dispatch centre staff additional training in direct response to the review of how police performed the night Fisher died.
“As a result, some policies are now in place to ensure there is closer scrutiny of incoming calls particularly regarding these marine-type incidents.”
It includes greater involvement by OPP communications supervisors when it comes to distress calls involving marine-related incidents, a new app capable to pinpointing a missing person through their cell phone and additional training for the 911 operators who are handling those calls, Dickson said.
“Specifically regarding types of flares, either used in distress or those that can be dropped by an aircraft as part of a search, and their descriptions, so we have a better idea of what people are seeing and describing when they call the OPP.”
Couple says OPP ‘blew us off’ the night Fisher vanished
“It’s nice to hear they’re making changes, they definitely need to, for sure,” said Jackie Fordham, who along with her husband, Ron, made four 911 calls to report distress flares on the north shore of Lake Erie the night Reginald Fisher disappeared.
Despite describing the flares and the location in detail in four separate phone calls over the span of an hour, Jackie Fordham said the dispatch centre wouldn’t listen.
“It was frustrating they blew us off.”
She said she accepts the OPP’s explanation that it was highly unusual to have two simultaneous marine incidents, but she still doesn’t accept the fact rescuers didn’t bother to investigate.
“Lake Erie is a big lake and regardless of the fact that they usually don’t get two incidents at the same time, that’s no reason to negate four 911 calls.”
“When we made the first call at 10:30 and then three subsequent calls after that, not one time did a police officer show up at our door. I truly think it would have made a difference for officers to see the flares for themselves.”
“I think that was the biggest failure,” she said. “The dispatcher should have just sent an officer to the door.”
Questions remain over timing, distance, decision-making
Ron Fordham agrees, saying what little information that’s contained in the summary of the operational review raises more questions than answers about who made the decision to not look into the flares, even though they were being reported by the Fordhams an hour after the other rescue had been complete.
“When we made our second or third call, we were told by the dispatcher that they had been rescued and this was approximately 10:45. An hour later they were still getting our calls and not doing anything about it.”
“We were adamant we were seeing flares and they continued on for 15 to 20 minutes and we weren’t the only ones who called from this area.”
At the time, 911 dispatchers told the Fordhams they were seeing flares being dropped by a C-130 Hercules aircraft that was called in to light the scene of the first distress call somewhere near Port Bruce.
Ron Fordham said Port Bruce is nearly 80 kilometres away from his home and too far to see. He and his wife believed the flares they saw were closer to Clearville, not far from Port Glasgow, where Fisher had left earlier that evening.
“Cleveland is 80 kilometres. We never see any lights or flares from over there.”
Jackie Fordham said she still remembers her fourth and final call to 911, where she pleaded with the 911 dispatcher in tears, to try and convince the operator there was more than one boater who needed help.
“I told them, ‘You have two boats in distress.’ I don’t know what else we could have said.”