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Did DC 911 forget to dispatch paramedics to a call?

Frustrated ambulance crew decides not to wait after 10-minute delay

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Frustration early this (Wednesday) morning for a DC ambulance crew after discovering the 911 center hadn’t dispatched the paramedics they requested for their patient 10-minutes earlier. Time-stamped radio traffic from (above) captured a pointed exchange between the crew from Ambulance 8 and a dispatcher with the Office of Unified Communications (OUC).

At 2:25 a.m., DC Fire and EMS Department Ambulance 8 was dispatched for a man down at the 7-11 near 4th Street and H Street in Southeast. Ambulance 8 is a basic life support (BLS) unit with emergency medical technicians (EMTs) aboard. At 2:37 a.m., Ambulance 8’s crew requested the closest advanced life support (ALS) resource to assist with the patient. About ten minutes later Ambulance 8’s crew discovered neither a paramedic staffed ambulance or paramedic engine company had been dispatched.

It was at 2:47 a.m. when Ambulance 8 asked OUC about the ALS unit, noting the computer screen showed none had been dispatched. OUC then told Ambulance 8 that Medic 8 would be sent from quarters. In fact, Medic 8 was dispatched at 2:48 a.m., but Ambulance 8 had already said, “We ain’t waiting”, indicating they’d transport the patient themselves. The Ambulance 8 crew member then added, “Been better if you sent them when we asked for them the first time.”

OUC response

OUC’s public information officer thanked STATter911 for bringing this call to their attention this morning and wrote in an email, “Will look into it with Ops to investigate what happened.”

Normally, if there were no ALS providers available, OUC would inform the ambulance crew by radio. That didn’t happen and there was no obvious indication a lack of resources was the problem this morning.

Business as usual

This is just the latest in a long series of delays and errors by the DC 911 center. Just three-days-ago, DC Fire & EMS units were dispatched to a stabbing at 54 D Street Southeast. The correct location was five miles away at 54th Street and D Street, Southeast. It took a DC firefighter from Engine 18 to figure out OUC had entered the correct location in the notes for the call, but dispatched it incorrectly.

Like the crew from Ambulance 8, you could hear the frustration in the firefighter’s voice when the dispatcher then tried to send them to the correct location 54 blocks away. The firefighter had to explain to OUC something the dispatcher should have already known–there were four or more engine companies closer to 54th and D than Engine 18.

Calling in by radio can be hazardous to your health

This morning’s incident is another example of OUC failing to promptly deal with requests for assistance by firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers working in the field. In October, an officer from an engine company expressed frustration on the radio when OUC was not sending the additional units he requested during a gas leak at New Hampshire Avenue and M Street Northwest.

In August, there was a four-minute delay dispatching firefighters to a house fire that a police officer called in by radio. Two people died in that fire. OUC Director Karima Holmes testified at a special DC Council hearing that it takes longer and is more difficult to process calls coming in by radio than via phone through 911. If that’s really the case and is really the cause for the deadly fire delay, it’s because of a 911 center with poorly trained workers and/or procedures that don’t work.

How do we turn “no position” into a position? 

STATter911 compiled a list of more than a dozen fire and EMS calls that were delayed or incorrectly dispatched between October and January and shared them with DC Council member Charles Allen. Allen did not respond to my request for an outside, independent investigation of OUC during a January 23 hearing.

Last week, reporter Julia Airey reported in DC Line that OUC never conducted an independent audit of how it processes and dispatches emergency calls. The audit was recommended four-years-ago by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) after a 2015 fatal Metro tunnel fire where OUC delayed the response by almost six-minutes. Council member Allen, responsible for OUC oversight, told Airey he had “no position” on OUC not following the NTSB recommendation.

I wonder how many more of these failures will occur before Charles Allen can come up with a position on whether there should be an independent investigation of DC 911. As I asked on Monday, What’s DC 911 hiding and why is the DC Council helping them hide it?

Will they shoot the messenger? 

Based on my experience covering OUC problems since the 911 center was created, here’s a prediction about this morning’s call. There’ll be more concern from some in charge that the crew from Ambulance 8 expressed frustration over the radio about not getting needed help for their patient than there will be over another failure at OUC. I’d love to be proven wrong on this and for someone in the government of the District of Columbia to finally say publicly it’s time to fix DC 911.

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