Now we know. The average call handling time for fire and EMS calls at Washington, DC’s 911 center (Office of Unified Communications or OUC) is almost 3 minutes. Yes, that’s the average and it’s double the 90 seconds recommended by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a standard used by many 911 centers. But no one seems to care.
This information makes very clear what I’ve been saying for many years and have been emphasizing over the last two months: The 911 center, the home of the real first responders during an emergency in our Nation’s Capital, is broken.
We know these details only because a reporter has finally made the effort to look closely at the agency that must be fixed if there’s to ever be significant improvement in Emergency Medical Services in the District of Columbia. The reporter’s name is Ben Nuckols and he works for the Associated Press. Nuckols is doing the job of the elected officials in DC and finding out problems they should have discovered and corrected many years ago.
While these serious problems have been going on well before the new mayor and council arrived in January, the current leaders failed to recognize or deal with the 911 issue when evidence of a broken system showed up just days after they were sworn in.
The Metro incident of January 12 that left one woman dead and more than 80 others suffering from smoke inhalation provided strong evidence that something was very wrong at OUC, but everyone ignored it.
Based soley on their past performance and reputation among firefighters and police officers, I began prodding reporters and the DC City Council, both publicly and privately, to find out what role OUC may have played in the delay getting help to those stranded passengers.
Just three days after the incident occurred, the first bit of confirmed information was released by the DC government that should have sounded the alarm, but didn’t — OUC took approximately six minutes to process and dispatch the call for help at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. They also took four minutes and five minutes to turn-around two related calls for separate locations. (We previously highlighted this and the more significant delay, 18 minutes, that occurred because of Metro’s Operations Control Center, another place that has a long history of failing to immediately alert fire and EMS.)
Even though Jennifer Greene, the head of Office of Unified Communications, twice testified before the DC City Council after that information was made public, no council member asked Greene why it took so long for fire and EMS to be alerted to the emergency in the Metro tunnel. Not one question. But Ben Nuckols now has the answers to the questions that were never asked at the public hearings:
A policy of routing calls about emergencies on the Metro subway to a supervisor at the District of Columbia’s 911 call center contributed to delays in getting firefighters to a fatal rail malfunction early this year.
The supervisor who took the calls from Metro about smoke in its tunnels did not have access to the software that 911 call takers use to help them dispatch calls quickly, according to officials at the District’s Office of Unified Communications. The problem was magnified when the same supervisor took back-to-back calls before dispatching the first one, officials there told The Associated Press.
Nuckols also wrote a recent article showing the lack of transparency that has been SOP at OUC for a very long time. Those policies are keeping the truth from the public about two other incidents in the last 10 days that are making headlines. In one, the closest paramedic unit was not sent to assist a child choking on a grape. That child has since died. In another, no ambulance was sent to transport an injured police officer.
In both cases, information that is known is not being released to the public. This includes a clear timeline (multiple reporters on the stories each seen to have different timelines), that would include how long it took to process those calls and what resources were and weren’t available.
Ben Nuckols article just proves the absolute necessity of what I’ve been urging for weeks — Jennifer Greene must go and there needs to be a complete house cleaning at OUC. If Greene knew what she was doing she would have long ago tackled this horrendous inability to dispatch fire and EMS calls in a timely manner.
Another major problem that Greene has ignored is the wasting of ALS resources because call takers are not trained to properly classify EMS runs (a constant complaint of both the civilian and firefighting EMS providers).
The 911 Center in the Nation’s Capital must have professional leadership in place that knows how to hire, train and manage. Anyone who thinks they can greatly improve EMS delivery in Washington, DC without tackling this problem is delusional.