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Why can’t DC 911 figure out they’re sending duplicate responses to the same emergency?

Engine crew on scene when shooting occurs illustrates how DC 911 wastes resources

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Is the Nation’s Capital the only place where the 911 center sends four engine companies, two ambulances, a paramedic unit and an EMS supervisor to handle one shooting victim? Is it the only 911 center that doesn’t cancel the extra resources after learning they had a duplicate dispatch for the same call and there’s only one patient? That’s what happened Thursday afternoon when DC 911 sent two different assignments to the same shooting scene. It’s a shooting one of the engines was on the scene of when it occurred.

The shooting was initially called in by the firefighters from DC Fire & EMS Department Engine 24. They were in the block where the shooting occurred as the shots were fired. This incident was one of at least three times on Thursday the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) failed to recognize duplicate responses to the same call.

Take the quiz–it isn’t that hard

Here’s a pop quiz for you. Don’t worry, knowledge of DC’s road system and SOPs aren’t required. All you need is common sense. The quiz has only one question, but it’s an important one. Here you go:

If you get a 911 call for either a person down or a shooting at 5010 New Hampshire Avenue, NW and you already have an engine company on the scene of a shooting at 4933 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, which one of the following actions would you take?

  • a. Immediately contact the engine company on the scene to determine if these are both the same call. If they are, only dispatch extra units as requested by the engine company.
  • b. Send a separate assignment to 5010 New Hampshire Avenue, but immediately inform the engine crew on the scene at 4933 New Hampshire Avenue that you’ve sent the second assignment. Ask if these are the same call. If the answer is yes, immediately cancel the second assignment if the on scene engine does not need additional assistance..
  • c. Send a separate assignment to 5010 New Hampshire Avenue and don’t say anything about it to the engine crew already on the scene at 4933 New Hampshire Avenue.

My training from handling 911 calls 40-years-ago has me answering “a”. I would contact the engine company immediately and follow the lead of the officer of that unit. I’ll accept answer “b” if you were somehow not aware of the 4933 New Hampshire Avenue call and your philosophy is getting someone going right away and fixing it immediately afterwards, if necessary.

Now, guess which option OUC picked. Of course they went for “c”. Just as they did a few hours later that same day during the Chinatown shootings that prompted a confrontation with Engine 3. Just as they did a few hours earlier at a car crash on Eastern Avenue.  And just as they did for a fire call that occurred Saturday while I began writing this post.

This is a constant problem with DC 911. It’s common to hear them wasting precious fire and EMS resources because the right hand and left hand seemed to have never met. I realize that thanks to cell phones duplicate calls are a much bigger problem today than when I was writing dispatch tickets by hand. But someone in the dispatching process must be able to figure out they’re sending duplicate assignments to virtually the same location for the same type of call.

Google Maps shows the two addresses on New Hampshire Avenue are just 450 feet apart.

Shots fired

Here’s what occurred with the shooting on New Hampshire Avenue, NW on Thursday  (the radio traffic is at the top of the page):

  • 3:10 p.m. OUC dispatches Engine 24 for a report of a man down at 4933 New Hampshire Avenue, NW.
  • 3:32 p.m. As Engine 24 treats the patient at 4933 New Hampshire shots are fired nearby. Engine 24 reports the shooting and asks OUC to dispatch an ambulance and medic unit for a shooting victim.
  • 3:33 p.m. OUC dispatches Ambulance 22 for a report of a man down at 5010 New Hampshire Avenue. Around the same time OUC tries to contact Engine 24 with no response.
  • 3:34 p.m. OUC dispatches Paramedic Engine 11, Ambulance 14 and Medic 5 in response to the request by Engine 24. (Note: It took OUC more than two-minutes, thirty-seconds to process Engine 24’s request for additional units.)
  • 3:35 p.m. OUC asks Engine 24 how many patients they have. The response, “One right now, priority 1. I’ll advise. Police are still looking around. It’s still an active scene here.” OUC asks if that’s a different patient than the “man down” from their original assignment. Engine 24 replies, “That’s correct. The patient we were trying to assist ran away after the gunfire. We got one shot. Priority 1. Ambulance 22 is with me.” The dispatcher tells Engine 24 they’ve dispatched Paramedic Engine 11, Ambulance 14 and Medic 5.
  • 3:36 p.m. OUC dispatches an upgrade to Ambulance 22’s call, sending Engine 14, Paramedic Engine 22 and EMS 1 for the shooting at 5010 New Hampshire Avenue. OUC says nothing to Engine 24 about dispatching two more engines and an EMS supervisor and doesn’t bother to ask if they’re the same call.
  • 3:37 p.m. Four minutes after Ambulance 22 was dispatched to 5010 New Hampshire Avenue, OUC finally mentions the second call to Engine 24, asking if it’s all the same incident. Engine 24 confirms it’s the same call. Even after getting this information, OUC doesn’t cancel the two engines and the EMS supervisor from the second assignment.
  • 3:39 p.m. Engine 14, dispatched on the second assignment notes that Ambulance 22–who they were dispatched to assist–was already transporting a patient to the hospital. The dispatcher confirms that’s correct. Engine 14 tries to find out if they’re still needed. There’s apparently no reply from the dispatcher.
  • 3:40 p.m. Engine 24 asks and gets a run down of all the apparatus coming to the scene.
  • 3:41 p.m. The special operations chief (it’s not clear from the radio traffic when or if the chief was assigned to the call) makes sure Engine 24 knows there was a second assignment sent to 5010 New Hampshire. Engine 24, having told OUC four-minutes earlier that these were the same call, confirms again with police that his information is correct–no other victims.
  • 3:42 p.m. The special operations chief tells OUC that these were both the same call (Engine 24 confirmed the same information for OUC five-minutes earlier) and to put the units in service that were sent to 5010 New Hampshire Avenue.

Frustration abounds

The confusion and other complications connected to sending multiple assignments to the same call is a regular feature at DC 911. What happened on New Hampshire Avenue may help put into context the other story from Thursday– the pointed radio traffic between OUC and the officer of an engine company. That incident–near Chinatown–occurred a little less than two-hours after the New Hampshire Avenue shooting. OUC had two engines, two medic units, two ambulances and two EMS supervisors assigned to a three block long crime scene where two people were shot. Without asking anyone already on the scene, OUC dispatched a third engine company–Engine 3–into the middle of the crime scene after getting a report of two injured police officers. The radio traffic from that conversation is immediately above.

Earlier on Thursday, Truck 15 was surprised to discover Engine 12 already on the scene of a collision they were dispatched to on Eastern Avenue (radio traffic above).

As I wrote the first paragraphs of this post on Saturday, it happened again. Engine 33 and Truck 8 were sent to 3700 9th Street, SE for an automatic fire alarm. Six-minutes later, OUC dispatched a box-alarm assignment to 3900 9th Street, SE for a report of smoke on the 4th floor. As you’ll hear on the radio traffic (above), the correct address for the box alarm was also 3700 9th Street (not 3900) and it was the same as the call that Engine 33 and Truck 8 were already handling. Once again, the failure to recognize these were duplicate calls created a great deal of confusion.

It’s just one of many OUC issues

The duplicate call problem is made worse by the lack of situational awareness and critical thinking that’s the norm inside DC 911. In fact, everything at OUC is made worse because dispatchers and call-takers aren’t properly processing the information in front of them.

This is just another symptom of a real crisis at DC 911. A crisis that isn’t even acknowledged by those in charge. It’s painfully obvious to those working at DC Fire & EMS and to most regular listeners of the radio traffic that OUC is a dysfunctional agency that can’t handle its core mission: Promptly and accurately dispatching fire, EMS and police to emergencies.

Without major intervention at OUC, the frustration and mistrust will only grow. My prediction is the leadership of the DC government will continue to ignore these warnings until tragedy forces them to pay attention. And even when that occurs, history tells us it’s just as likely they’ll keep on pretending there’s no problem at DC 911.

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