Phil Armstrong calls 911 call lawsuit ‘baseless’ as activists demand his resignation

Written by on October 26, 2021

Phil Armstrong calls 911 call lawsuit ‘baseless’ as activists demand his resignation

By Genesis Ortega

October 26, 2021

A federal lawsuit claims a Lehigh County 911 dispatcher hung up on a Spanish-speaking caller who was trapped in the basement of an Allentown house in a July 2020 fire. The man and a 14-year-old died in the blaze. (File photo | WLVR)

Community activists are calling for Lehigh County Executive Phil Armstrong’s resignation just a week before his re-election bid.

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The action follows accusations that the county’s 911 center discriminated against Spanish-speaking callers, and led to tragedy in July 2020. 

One 911 call cited in a federally filed lawsuit purports to detail the experience of a Spanish-speaking man in Allentown who called the emergency center to report a fire. The dispatcher allegedly told him to speak English, and hung up the phone. The suit links this to his death and the death of a 14-year-old. 

In a written statement, Armstrong called the allegations baseless.

Armstrong said the call center received a dozen calls within five minutes and all confirmed the North Fair Street location of the house fire. In a prepared statement issued Friday, Armstrong said the caller identified in the lawsuit spoke in English, said he was trapped in the basement and was told help was on the way.

Community activists, including Enid Santiago, sought to meet Armstrong on Monday at the Lehigh County Government Center on Hamilton Street with a list of demands, including his resignation. 

“Just say I have failed the largest per capita of Latin-Latinx community in the state of Pennsylvania,” Santiago said. 

Twenty-five percent of Lehigh County residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. That number is 50% in the city of Allentown. Santiago’s demands include hiring more bilingual staff. 

“Being that we are the largest city in this county, there should be a mass hiring of Latinos. There should be representation that should be showing at every level, specifically the 911 center,” she said. 

Armstrong was not available but the group met with Frank Kane, Lehigh County director of Community and Economic Development, who said the county has had challenges hiring people who speak English and Spanish. 

“We would love anyone’s help who’s willing to give it on finding bilingual people to work in our 911 center,” he said. 

Kane said there are plans to create a county-level human relations commission and hire a liaison with the Latino community. 

“Without a question, it’s harder to be Hispanic here than it is to be white,” Kane said. 

County officials say they plan to release another statement and the 911 call later this week.

Armstrong, a Democrat in his fourth year as county executive, is challenged by Republican Glenn Eckhart in the Nov. 2 general election.

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