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A dispatch delay for a deadly fire & DC’s 911 officials keep making excuses

911 director finds more reasons to justify 4-minute dispatch time to fire that killed 2

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Previous coverage of this story

Instead of admitting four-minutes is way too long to dispatch a house fire, those in charge at the 911 center in the Nation’s Capital keep making up excuses. The number of different excuses grows each time another reporter asks about the deadly fire at 708 Kennedy Street, Northwest. The fire occurred on Sunday, August 18 around 9:30 a.m and took the lives of 9-year-old Yafet Solomon and 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede. A passing police officer used his radio to notify DC’s 911 center, known as the Office of Unified Communications (OUC), about the burning home. DC Fire & EMS Department units weren’t dispatched until four-minutes and one-second later, well above OUC’s own standards and similar standards offered by the National Fire Protection Association (below).

So far, OUC’s director, Karima Holmes, and public information officer, Wanda Royster Gattison, have provided three different responses to questions from three reporters. As you’ll see in my analysis (below) of the various OUC responses, the responses don’t really address why four-minutes was needed to process this call. It leaves the impression OUC’s leaders are defending the indefensible instead of just admitting the call was poorly handled.

RESPONSE 3: Let’s start with the most recent OUC statement provided to Natalie Delgadillo at DCist:

“While we believe our employees performed appropriately with the information given in this challenging incident, as an agency we will continue to review what happened and evaluate what we can learn from it.

“In this instance, despite the complex circumstances surrounding the initiation of the dispatch, this incident was handled both according to protocol and in the most efficient manner possible. From the time of the initial notification by radio from the MPD officer and the first unit’s arrival time it took about 7 minutes, within our average response time.”

“… we believe our employees performed appropriately”: For the first time–while still defending its employees actions–OUC says it will continue to review and learn from this call. Maybe the first thing they should learn is that four-minutes is not an acceptable call processing time for a house fire. The second thing is to finally learn why OUC is consistently unable to meet standards for dispatching fire and EMS calls.

“Complex circumstances”: Since when did it become “complex” to dispatch a house fire called in by a police officer? If this is “complex”, maybe the system needs an overhaul to make sure this type of call can be handled routinely as a basic function of a 911 center.

“…it took about 7 minutes, within our average response time.”: Yes, but what OUC isn’t acknowledging is that call processing took up four of those minutes, or almost 60 percent of that time period. What OUC isn’t telling us is how much longer than its own and national standards it took to process this call or what the 911 center’s average response (call processing) time is for fire and EMS calls.

RESPONSE 2: This response comes in an interview OUC director Holmes had with WTOP Radio’s Liz Anderson. Here are some of the highlights.

“Overall, my thoughts about it is that there was no delay, no slow response,” Holmes said.

“You can clearly hear he was in distress attempting to get in this residence. He asked dispatch for assistance — help. She dispatches backup — this is a police dispatcher. She gets some units headed his way,” Holmes said.

Holmes noted that while collecting information to get the first call squared away, “we actually had another life-threatening call, a priority-one medical call.”

“Different calls take different times. There are some 911 calls we get out in 30 seconds because the information is there, we have everything we needed. It gets done. Some calls take longer … So what we’ve done in the industry, we’ve shied away from rushing through calls, and we really looked at the quality of a call — and that’s what you have here,” she said.

“… there was no delay, no slow response”: Sorry, if you’re in charge of a 911 center and you believe a four-minute call processing time for a house fire is not slow or doesn’t constitute a delay, maybe you’re the problem.

“She gets some units headed his way”: Those “units” would be more police officers, when what was needed were firefighters and EMS. Maybe the job of director of the 911 center should be to look at how quickly police were sent and try to figure out how to streamline the process so you can send fire and EMS almost as rapidly.

“… we actually had another life-threatening call, a priority-one medical call.”: The 911 director is not really saying a big-city 911 center can’t promptly handle two high-priority calls at the same time, is she?

“… we’ve shied away from rushing through calls, and we really looked at the quality of a call”: Here’s an important question. Which is considered better quality, arriving at a house fire where people are trapped in four-minutes or seven-minutes? If OUC processed this call in 60-90 seconds the firefighters would have been there in four to four-minutes and thirty seconds. How is that seven-minute overall response time better quality than one that gets the firefighters on the scene three-minutes sooner?

RESPONSE 1: This is the one provided to WTTG-TV/FOX5’s Paul Wagner, who broke the story about the delay:

“The reason is because the information was relayed initially by radio transmission from an MPD 4D officer”: Does anyone really believe it takes two-minutes and thirty-seconds or three-minutes more to process a call that came in by police radio versus one that came in by 911?

Is anyone really buying any of these ridiculous excuses?

The facts are a young boy and a man are dead. A properly functioning 911 center could have gotten help to them as much as three-minutes sooner. We don’t know if it would have saved lives, but we do know getting firefighters to the scene sooner when people are trapped, is almost always better. The leadership of DC’s 911 center needs to stop gaslighting us with nonsensical excuses and start working on finally fixing a system that has long been broken.

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