ST. LOUIS — Ashley Schlesing could barely believe what she was hearing when she turned on the news July 1.
“I’m sick to my stomach, I just can’t believe that this is still a problem,” Schlesing said, reflecting on the moment she learned another person died after 911 calls weren't immediately answered.
In January, Schlesing’s husband, Richard Schlesing, accidentally shot himself in the leg while stopped at an intersection in south St. Louis. He was on his way home from work. His wife drove his route home from work searching for him when he didn’t come home.
When she found him, he was slumped at his wheel. His cell phone was sitting next to him.
The universal emergency number, 911, was the last number he called – an hour before she found him. Her phone records show no one ever answered.
Then, on July 1, Katherine Coen died when a tree fell on her car during a storm. She was 33 years old. A nearby business owner told 5 On Your Side one of her employees called 911, but her calls went unanswered for about 30 minutes.
City leaders defended the 911 call center following Coen’s death, asking the public to come forward with phone numbers of people who tried to call for help that day but didn’t get an answer. And, they say, salaries for dispatchers have gone up and plans to build a new dispatching center to house police, fire and EMS dispatchers under one roof are moving ahead.
Schlesing says all that isn’t enough.
Her attorney, Grant Boyd, filed a lawsuit this week alleging Mayor Tishaura Jones and others have “repeatedly promised to fix the 911 system,” and have “done little to nothing to actually fix the 911 system.”
The mayor’s spokesman said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Schlesing first contacted the I-Team in February after a letter she and her attorney sent to Jones went unanswered.
The mayor’s office told the I-Team it would not comment on Schlesing’s letter because it was viewed as a legal threat. Schlesing told the I-Team she only wanted to have a conversation with the mayor to discuss how the 911 system could be improved so no one else ever experience what her husband did.
Without a response, Schlesing says she believes taking the city to court is the only way to get answers and hold leaders accountable.
“It's not about money, I don't care about money, it's about justice being served and this issue being fixed,” she said.
Police showed Ashley Schlesing surveillance footage that captured her husband at the intersection. It shows him pulling over and parking after the gun went off.
“It breaks my heart to know that that was the last call he made in hopes that somebody would be there to help him,” she said. “He tried to call the second it happened, you know? That's something I now have to live with that haunts me.”
City leaders held a press conference four days after Coen’s death during the storm.
Interim Public Safety Director Charles Coyle said the city’s efforts to build a $30 million building to house police, fire and EMS dispatchers under one roof are still ongoing. Discussions to do so began years ago.
Jones' administration pledged in 2021 during a press conference to combine all categories of dispatchers under one roof within three months.
Public Safety Department spokesman Monte Chambers sent a statement to the I-Team, which showed only part of that pledge has happened so far.
“Previously, all three were in separate dispatch locations," according to the statement. "Due to our work, EMS and police are currently dispatching from the same location; Fire dispatchers are not. The City of St. Louis continues to work on the plan for the [new dispatch center] that will have all dispatchers operating in the same building. In the meantime, we are raising pay for dispatchers, creating consolidated positions, and cross-training where possible.”
During the July 5 press conference, Coyle said the city has given dispatchers “sizeable raises,” and also plans to build an $8,000-square-foot daycare facility for dispatcher’s children as another way to recruit candidates.
Coyle also said the city has created an additional title for dispatchers called Public Safety dispatchers, but it’s unclear how that new category of dispatcher will help get calls answered more quickly.
On Thursday, city leaders posted a flier on its Twitter account stating they are “urgently hiring” dispatchers for a biweekly pay of $1,512, or about $39,000 a year.
The city provided the I-Team with an updated salary matrix Thursday showing how much each of the city’s four categories of dispatchers make:
- EMS dispatchers $32,000 - $34,000
- Police dispatchers $39,000 - $41,000
- Public Safety dispatchers $39,000 - $43,000
- Fire dispatchers $49,000 - $75,000
Coyle said the city is too short on dispatchers to begin cross-training efforts that would give different types of dispatchers the ability to answer different calls.
“Now we're about 40 vacancies short with 911 dispatchers,” Coyle said during the press conference. “We're about 10 or 50% short with EMS dispatchers.”
Internal emails obtained by the I-Team show the police department has been “patching” its six police districts, so there have been three dispatchers covering all six police districts during the past two weekends.
“Keep in mind that we have one dispatcher handling three radio channels. We are short-staffed on 911 call takers as well so if you could please refrain from contacting [internal police phone number] unless it is an emergency it would be appreciated,” the memo states.
Schlesing is now a single mother of three.
She said she’s planning to move out of St. Louis to be closer to her family – and to live somewhere where she knows any calls she ever makes for help in the future will get answered.
“It blows my mind,” Ashley Schlesing said. “No one should have to relive what I went through. And the fact that it's still going on, it's a serious problem. What is it going to take for someone to fix it?”