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There’s controversy in Washington, DC over a fire that left a man and a nine-year-old boy dead. And there should be. Everyone needs to be angry over failures by two DC agencies to take preventive action at a home that was a fire trap. But what most everyone will miss, as they always do, is the failure of a third DC agency–the city’s 911 center–and the ridiculous excuse provided for its poor performance..
The focus right now of most reporters and the DC government is on the failure to follow-up on a police officer’s report of significant life safety issues inside the home at 708 Kennedy Street, Northwest. The report from the police officer was in March. The officer even checked-up on that report, sending five emails to make sure his concerns were being acted upon. Despite the officer’s efforts, no one from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or the DC Fire Marshal’s Office got into the home for an inspection. The fire occurred on August 18. (Read details here.)
That’s important stuff and heartbreaking information. I’m glad to see reporters looking for accountability after the deaths of nine-year-old Yafet Solomon and 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede. But, at the same time, no one should ignore the role of 911 on the day of the fire. But if history is a guide, it will be ignored.
I’m referring to the four minutes it took for DC’s 911 center to process and dispatch the call on Kennedy Street. Yes, four full minutes from the time a passing police officer notified the Office of Unified Communications (the city’s 911 center, AKA OUC) of a house fire until OUC dispatched the first units from DC Fire & EMS. A four minute call processing time at 9:30 on a Sunday morning. That’s outrageous. What may be worse is the response the OUC public information officer sent to a reporter in defense of the four minutes OUC held onto the call before alerting firefighters.
WTTG-TV/FOX5 reporter Paul Wagner is the reporter who uncovered this delay, tweeted about it and included it in his report last night about the failure to inspect the home:
New-Office of Unified Communications confirms it took more than 3 minutes to dispatch units to fatal fire on Kennedy St. OUC says delay caused by getting info over police radio rather than 911 call. Report shows officers reported people trapped. Standard is 64 to 106 seconds. pic.twitter.com/JFRHazECVI
— Paul Wagner (@Fox5Wagner) August 28, 2019
This four minute delay shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone paying attention. Unfortunately, my experience is that few–besides Paul Wagner–are paying attention to the continuing incompetence at the 911 center that protects the Nation’s Capital. Just look at the history.
It was May of 2015 when the previous OUC director, Jennifer Greene, lost her job due to her ridiculous response to my testimony at a DC City Council hearing (above). That testimony was about the 911 center’s continuing failure to meet the 90-second standard for call processing set by both NFPA and OUC. Specifically, I talked about the six-minutes it took to dispatch what turned into a fatal fire on the region’s subway system. That fire took the life of passenger Carol Glover. Greene told Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie they’ve never been able to figure out why 911 can’t meet the 90-second standard. She absurdly suggested the solution was to change the standard to allow for more time. Within hours of STATter911 highlighting this comment from Greene, she had departed OUC for good.
We shoot for that one minute and thirty seconds but we don’t make it. And it looks like we’re deficient when, in fact, we are, actually probably better than our counterparts in this area or, at least, equivalent to our counterparts. And so, we need to definitely look at our standard and make it more realistic and achievable.
Now, here we are four-years-later and a nine-year-old boy and an adult are waiting, trapped in a burning home with no way out. This little boy and a man have to wait an extra two-minutes and thirty-seconds because OUC still can’t dispatch an emergency call in a timely manner. They can’t do it even when the emergency is reported by radio from one of the city’s on-duty police officers directly to the very same center that dispatches the fire trucks. Four minutes!
Just like Jennifer Greene, the current leadership at OUC provided an extremely bizarre response explaining why the dispatch took so long. It was sent to reporter Wagner who shared it on Twitter. You need to read this to believe it:
You read it correctly. The current people running the 911 center in our Nation’s Capital want us to believe it took four-minutes and one second (not “over three minutes”) to dispatch fire and EMS to a call for people trapped in a house fire because the request came in by radio from a police officer and not through 911. What PIO Wanda Royster Gattison want us to believe is that OUC is incapable of quickly processing radio calls for help by DC Police. That means “tough luck” next time a police officer is shot, because DC OUC is going to excuse taking its sweet time sending fire and EMS due to the officer using the radio to call for help and not dialing 911.
Sounds like Ms. Gattison believes 911 needs something more than the address and what’s on fire from the police officer before they can get the fire side of the operation rolling. Are they really running through whatever dispatch software protocol DC uses with the officer via the radio? WTF?
Anyone in leadership at a 911 center that would allow such a bullshit answer to be their response on why it took four-minutes to dispatch a house fire where two people died is part of the problem. Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters four city workers have been placed on leave over the failure to inspect the Kennedy Street home. If Ms. Bowser lets the OUC statement stand and doesn’t immediately take similar action with the people who wrote that response, then the mayor isn’t part of the solution either.
I’ve been reporting on OUC’s inability to treat 911 calls for fire and EMS as actual emergencies since OUC was created 15-years-ago. Quite frankly, no one has ever shown they really give a shit about this issue. Not the OUC director who replaced Jennifer Greene. Not the deputy mayor the OUC director reports to. Not the mayor. Not the DC City Council. And, other than Paul Wagner, not any reporters. If any of them really cared it just wouldn’t be this way. It wouldn’t have taken four minutes to dispatch help to Yafet Solomon and Fitsum Kebede.
Anyone who believes I’m being crass and cruel, please just stop for a moment and think. Think what those extra two-minutes and thirty-seconds must have been like for Yafet and Fitsum trapped in a burning home. Think about the extra four-minutes and thirty-seconds it took while Carol Glover was gasping on the floor of a subway car.
Karima Holmes has been OUC director since 2016, following the exit of Jennifer Greene. This fire shows her agency still has the very same problem it did that brought about Greene’s departure. A problem that should be fatal for any 911 director–an inability to dispatch emergency help in a timely manner. It’s the basic mission of 911 and after 15-yeas of existence OUC still can’t get out of its own way and get it right.
When is someone in leadership in DC going to finally care and be as angry as I am about the status quo at OUC? When is the mayor, deputy mayor or city council going to say four-minutes and six -minutes are too long and we must fix this? When are any of them going to look at a statement like the one given to Paul Wagner and just call bullshit?
No one likes to hear “I told you so.” But take a moment and listen to my testimony (below) about OUC from four-years-ago. I warned then–as I will now–OUC will never get it right if those in charge don’t finally and definitively address the 911 center’s inability to quickly send help to people like Yafet Solomon and Fitsum Kebede as if lives depended on it. It’s all so shameful and tragic.