The RCMP has apologized and says it has changed its policies following the death of Kerry Canepotatoe, who died in the wilderness in northern Saskatchewan after a 911 call failed to bring help.
At a news conference Thursday, the RCMP's chief superintendent in Regina, Randy Beck, said it was "simple human error" that resulted in the dispatcher who took the call from Canepotatoe's cousin not dispatching a tow truck.
"A simple mistake," Beck said. "The very next moment that this call was dropped, where the cellphone coverage was lost, the next call came in, which was a robbery. His attention was diverted to dealing with the caller on that robbery and subsequently erred in not dispatching."
The dispatcher is a civilian RCMP employee based Regina.
Canepotatoe, 19, was found dead April 12 on Highway 942 near Big River, Sask.
She had been with three other people who were stranded after driving into a slough in a remote forested area on April 8.
One of the other three, her cousin Melissa Rabbitskin, phoned 911 for help. In the recording that was played at the news conference, Rabbitskin can be heard asking for help several times.
The man she spoke to at the Regina communications centre told her that her phone was cutting out and tried to find out where she was.
"I don't know," she said. "I'm really lost, I don't know where I am."
Rabbitskin phoned three times.
"I have two kids with me and I'm trying to get back home and am stuck in water," she said on the final call. "It's kinda deep water and I'm trying to get back home."
She again asked for a tow truck to pull her out.
"Yeah, just hang on there, I'm ... don't be pushing it girl," the dispatcher said a moment later. "So you don't know where you are. You're on the Chitek Road and that's all you know?"
The dispatcher said he was trying to get her a tow truck and then the line went dead.
Canepotatoe set off on foot to get help, but never made it to safety and died from exposure. She had travelled some 60 kilometres on the highway to Big River.
Rabbitskin and two young children — her four-year-old son and 10-year-old nephew — drank rainwater to survive and spent a week in the car before being found by searchers.
Beck said he spoke to the families and extended his deepest sympathy and regrets their loss.
"We did not live up to their expectations or the standards we have set for ourselves and for that we apologize," he said.
Beck said the dispatcher who handled the call had 33 years of experience.
He added that the employee was going through an RCMP discipline process but declined to elaborate on that.
As a result of Canepotatoe's death, Beck said the RCMP has changed its policies on how 911 calls are handled.
Since Sept. 1, no single RCMP member can make the decision to close the file on a 911 call and not send help. A supervisor must now sign off on such decisions.
Big River is about 230 kilometres north of Saskatoon.