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This is one of those days when I have to question if Rod Serling is not lurking out there and I’ve crossed over into the “Twilight Zone”. I just read in the newspaper of record for the Nation’s Capital that a DC police officer telling a dispatcher there’s a fire at a specific location isn’t enough information to immediately dispatch fire and EMS. Instead of sending the DC Fire & EMS Department right away, the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) needed four-minutes and one-second to process that call. The OUC director, Karima Holmes, told The Washington Post that an internal review shows this call, where two people died, was handled well.
Holmes said her agency had performed an internal review and determined that the call was handled well. She said the dispatcher’s questions were important to determine what type of equipment should be sent to the scene of the fire.
Handled well? This next bit of information will show you how absurd that characterization of this call is and how Karima Holmes is continuing to mislead any reporters asking questions about the response. Even if you somehow believe OUC couldn’t or shouldn’t have sent DC Fire & EMS just on the officer’s initial call for help at 9:36:16 on August 18, how do you defend what happened when dispatchers got the information Holmes claims was delaying the response? OUC’s own data shows that at 9:37:59 an officer told the Fourth District police dispatcher there were people trapped inside the burning home at 708 Kennedy Street, NW. Armed with that information, it still took two-minutes and 18-seconds for OUC to dispatch DC Fire & EMS. That’s well beyond OUC’s own 90 second standard. Yet, Karima Holmes tells us the call was handled well.
Here’s something else Karima Holmes isn’t telling us about the call she believes was handled well. It also comes from OUC’s own data. At 9:39:09, more than three minutes after a police officer told them there was a fire at 708 Kennedy Street, NW, a dispatcher mistakenly changed the coding of the call from “fire” to “structure damage”. It would take another 43-seconds for anyone to realize that mistake and correct it to “structure fire”. The call was finally dispatched at 9:40:17, four-minutes and one-second after the police officer first desperately called for help. Yes, Karima Holmes believes that call was handled well by OUC.
Of course the claim by Karima Holmes this call was handled well is pure myth. Even a former fire chief from a jurisdiction bordering Washington, DC took the unusual step of publicly criticizing how both OUC responded to the police officer’s call for help and how Holmes responded to reporters.
Former Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department Chief Marc Bashoor, who is currently the public safety director and fire chief in Highland County, Florida, is apparently as incredulous as I am about a previous excuse from Holmes. That’s the one where Holmes wants us to believe it’s not how long it takes to dispatch a call that’s important. Holmes believes it’s all about quality. This is what Holmes told WTOP Radio’s Liz Anderson two-weeks-ago,“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.”
I’m sure Chief Bashoor and anyone else who knows how a 911 center works would tell you there should have been no delay in dispatching DC Fire & EMS immediately on the first call from the officer saying there was a fire at 708 Kennedy Street, NW. That request should have had firefighters on the road within 90 seconds (preferably less than 60) and not four-minutes. If OUC did that, the worst that would have happened is OUC sent too much or not enough fire equipment. The last I’ve heard. DC Fire & EMS Department firefighters still carry radios to deal with such an issue. In fact, firefighters do just that adjustment on every fire call OUC dispatches. It’s part of the job for the incident commander. Just send someone is a key point the Washington Post article missed.
Just think about this for a moment. The person running 911 in DC believes it makes for a better quality call to send nothing when you don’t have the all of the information you think you need. What if the police officer was too busy rescuing people or if there were radio problems, are you just going to withhold the dispatch for as long as it takes to get what you need? Come on, just send something without delay.
I guess it comes down to the fact that one of us is struggling with reality here. It’s possible it’s me and not Ms. Holmes. Maybe I really am having a Twilight Zone moment and am now confined to that middle ground between light and substance. Maybe I now live in a world where taking four minutes or even longer to dispatch firefighters to a house fire with people trapped is a quality, well-handled response. But I’m still holding out a little hope that what is real here is Karima Holmes is just making excuses for an obviously flawed response to a real life and death emergency. That she’s trying to cover-up for an agency that has long failed to promptly process emergency calls for help. I’m still holding out hope DC’s mayor, city council and local press corps will finally call out this BS and somehow get on the path to fixing DC 911. Sadly, if history is any guide, it’s very likely I will just continue hearing an endless loop in my head of Rod Serling’s voice.