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This one is pretty astounding, even for DC 911’s low standards. For at least the third time in as many months, DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) dispatched firefighters to the wrong quadrant of the city for a reported fire. The difference this time is that firefighters were able to discover the correct address because–wait for it–it was right there in the notes of the computer aided dispatch record. And then, to make matter worse, OUC decided to send a completely separate box alarm to the correct address even though it’s located just two blocks from where they initially sent firefighters.
As you listen to the audio from OpenMHz.com (above), you’ll hear that things were a bit chaotic for a few minutes. Here’s a rundown of what occurred last (Monday) night shortly after 10:00 p.m.
- 10:11 p.m. A box alarm is dispatched for a reported structure fire at a clinic located at 810 1st Street, Northwest.
- 10:12 p.m. It’s clear that someone at OUC realizes this may be a wrong address, but the dispatcher doesn’t express that clearly to the responding battalion chiefs. The dispatcher just keeps telling one of the battalion chiefs to standby.
- 10:13 p.m. First due Engine 3 asks the battalion chief for an address check because things aren’t adding up on 1st Street, Notrhwest. OUC again tells the battalion chief to standby.
- 10:14 p.m. Engine 6 suggests the correct location might be in Northeast and then Truck 4 transmits the following conversation stopper, “The caller’s address is 810 1st Street, Northeast. It’s in the notes.” I’ve pulled that remarkable excerpt out and you can hear it in the video below.
Let pause the timeline for a moment to explain this a little further to those who don’t know DC geography. As you can see on the map (below), the correct address–810 1st Street, Northeast–is slightly more than two blocks from the incorrect address, where all of the firefighters and apparatus from the initial box alarm are located (or are nearby).
Common sense would tell you the best way to rebound from this wrong dispatch is to send all of the fire companies on 1st Street, Northwest just two blocks east to the correct location. The incident commander, Battalion Chief 6, has such common sense. He sent everyone to 1st Street, Northeast.
Apparently, common sense is in short supply at OUC. At about the same time as five engines, two ladder trucks, a heavy rescue, two battalion chiefs and an ambulance were relocating two blocks, OUC was coming up with a different solution. Let’s resume the timeline.
- 10:15 p.m. While the original box alarm is showing up at the correct location on 1st Street, NE and dropping lines and taking assignments, a dispatcher tells Battalion Chief 6 and all of the companies to go back in service. It appears everyone on the initial box just ignored that ridiculous order from OUC.
- 10:16 p.m. OUC dispatches a second box alarm to go to 810 1st Street, Northeast. It’s a completely different assignment of five engines, two ladder trucks, a heavy rescue, two battalion chiefs and an ambulance. The closest unit from the second box assignment is Engine 12, about 18-blocks-away, or a little less than two miles. Remember, 11 different units are now being sent to 1st Street, Northeast even though there’s the exact same assignment of apparatus already at that location or nearby.
- 10:17 p.m. The Special Operations Chief, sent on the second box-alarm, tries to figure out if he and the rest of the companies should cancel and go in service. OUC responds, but the reply fails to make sense. Another dispatcher makes an announcement canceling the units on the second box-alarm, listing each company by name.
- 10:18 p.m. The Special Operations Chief re-announces that the units on the second box-alarm can go in service and again works to verify that’s correct with OUC.
- 10:19 p.m. Things are so confused OUC again see the need to announce the list of companies that can go in service. At about the same time, Battalion Chief 6 holds Engine 3 and Truck 4 from the original box to handle an electrical outlet at 810 1st Street, Northeast.
I’m starting to believe that OUC really stands for Office of Uncontrolled Chaos. How else do you explain sending a box alarm to 810 1st Street, Northwest when it’s crystal clear the 911 caller is at 810 1st Street, Northeast? How else do you explain those in charge at OUC deciding the best way to fix their mistake is to cancel all of the firefighters and apparatus that are just two blocks away from the correct address? How else do you explain OUC’s decision that put 11 additional units on the street–responding from much further away–creating confusion?
As mentioned earlier, this is the third incorrect dispatch to a reported fire in the past three months where firefighters were sent to the wrong quadrant of the city (here are the other two). Anyone starting to see a pattern?
Remember, these are just the mistakes we know about. Don’t forget about all of the delayed dispatches to Metrorail (at least 9 incidents in 3 months) and other incidents, including a double fatal fire in August. Or the times OUC can’t figure out how to send additional help requested by firefighters, even when the firefighters are threatened with harm. And don’t lose sight of the fact that OUC has never been able to meet the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards for call processing times.
Let’s face it, DC 911 is dysfunctional and just can’t handle its core mission of rapidly and accurately dispatching fire, EMS and police. Anyone paying attention knows this. It’s just not clear that those who have the power to fix this are really paying attention.