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On February 24, I tweeted (above) that DC 911 sent two different ambulances on what were likely the same EMS runs because call takers and dispatchers are unaware the intersection of Florida Avenue and R Street exists at two different locations in Northwest Washington. It’s one of those “gotchas” every worker at the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) should know before they’re allowed to receive and dispatch 911 calls.
You’d think booting an emergency run and being publicly called out for it would be enough motivation for the management of a 911 center to remind its workers of the street anomalies that can delay sending emergency help to where it’s needed. If you thought that, you clearly don’t know DC 911. It has long been an emergency communications center where the same mistakes are repeated daily due to inadequate training and management. But even I’m shocked about how poorly the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) mishandled a run to Florida Avenue and R Street NW last (Tuesday) night. It also verified my educated guess about OUC’s lack of knowledge concerning the two intersections.
OUC sent three different ambulances to Florida and R within 40-minutes. Two of those ambulances were dispatched back-to-back to the same wrong intersection. But that description doesn’t do justice to how badly this emergency was fouled-up by OUC. To get the full experience, allow me to walk you through the radio traffic and explain a little bit about Florida Avenue’s geography.
It isn’t just R Street
Generally speaking, the avenues in the Nation’s Capital run in straight lines cutting at an angle across the grid of lettered streets that run east and west and the north-south oriented numbered streets. Starting in the Northeast quadrant of the city, Florida Avenue does exactly that and continues doing so for its first nine blocks in Northwest. It’s at 9th Street & U Street NW that things start to get a little screwy. Florida suddenly takes a jog north and then west, looping around until it approaches 15th Street and W Street NW. It’s at that point the trouble begins. This is where Florida Avenue straightens out again. When it does so, it now crosses the lettered and numbered streets at what is basically the opposite angle from the way it started. This means Florida is now going to meet some of the very same lettered streets it met on the other side.
I know that’s a complicated explanation, but this is all you and OUC’s workers really need to know: Florida Avenue intersects twice in Northwest Washington with these lettered streets: R, S, T, U, V and W. Essentially one set of those intersections is to the west and one set to the east. If you look closely at the map and want to be picky, you could even say the intersection of Florida Avenue and W Street occurs three times.
What all this means for DC 911 is that if you can’t get a hundred block either on Florida Avenue or on the cross street (R to W) you must get more information from the caller. Things like the nearest numbered street or a landmark. This should be a mandatory part of OUC’s training. It’s like just another recurring OUC screw-up, “Water Street” and “Warder Street”. Both are in Northwest with similar hundred blocks. If you can’t get the caller to spell the street, you need to ask if they’re in Georgetown or near Georgia Avenue. Last week, someone at OUC apparently didn’t do any of that and mistakenly sent firefighters to Water Street in Georgetown when they should have been on Warder Street.
Now that you have the background, let’s get to the meat of this story.
Up first-Ambulance 1
The clip above sounds pretty routine. Ambulance 1 is sent to Florida Avenue and R Street NW for an overdose at 7:22 p.m. There’s nothing in the radio transmission to say which Florida and R, but if Ambulance 1 is coming from its quarters, the one to the west is about six blocks away. The next transmission from Ambulance 1 at 7:30 p.m. confirms they did go to the western Florida and R but can’t find a patient. The dispatcher does a call back and provides new information to Ambulance 1 that the patient is at the entrance to the park at Florida and R NW.
Spoiler alert: There’s no park at Florida and R on the west side, but guess where there is a small park?
Up next-Ambulance 6 (this is the mind-boggling part)
In this clip, our friends in Ambulance 1 are getting a little frustrated because they checked the entire area again and now can’t find either a patient or a park. As the dispatcher on the EMS channel and Ambulance 1 discuss this another call goes out on the main dispatch channel. This one sends Ambulance 6 for a man down at–you guessed it–Florida Avenue and R Street NW. The time is 7:40 p.m. and it’s 18-minutes after the initial dispatch to Florida and R NW.
Seconds later, in the discussion with Ambulance 1, the EMS dispatcher says, “We are getting a second call for for Florida Avenue and R Street NW and it’s the west side.” Ambulance 1 responds, “I’m telling you we literally just drove all over Florida Avenue and R Street from … went back down to 18th Street all the way through R Street, after Florida Avenue, all the way to Mass. Avenue. I’m not sure if they are in the right quadrant, but nobody is waving us down. We have our lights and sirens on and we have nobody waving us down at all.”
The dispatcher acknowledges Ambulance 1. It’s unclear if Ambulance 1 goes in service. The next transmission from the dispatcher is 90-seconds later. It’s the re-transmission of the call sending Ambulance 6 to Florida Avenue and R Street NW for the man down. Now, you’d think the dispatcher–after just hearing quite clearly how Ambulance 1 can’t find anything at the western Florida Avenue and R Street NW–would make damn sure that Ambulance 6 is going to the east side Florida and R NW. You’d think that only if you didn’t know OUC. (My apologies for being so damn cynical and sarcastic, but OUC has been like this for way too long and no one cares.)
When I heard this clip (above) live while listening to the scanner last night I reflexively let out a scream of frustration that likely scared my neighbors. I’m not making that up. It happened. This is where we find out that Ambulance 6 didn’t go to the one on the east side, but went to the very same Florida and R NW as Ambulance 1. Yes, OUC sent a second ambulance to the same spot as the first ambulance at the very time the first ambulance was telling them there was no patient. I know you’ll be surprised to hear Ambulance 6 didn’t find anything either.
But wait. The dispatcher now has new information. DC police are on the scene with the patient and they want the ambulance to respond to the 100 block of Florida Avenue NW. And what’s in the 100 block of Florida Avenue NW? Both the east intersection with R Street and a small park. Bingo! Ambulance 6 is 20 blocks away from that location. So, now it’s time for a third ambulance to be dispatched for the same run.
And finally, the winner-Ambulance 12
It’s 8:00, do you know where your ambulances are? Well, two DC Fire and EMS Department ambulances just wasted 38-minutes trying to find a patient 20 blocks from where the patient was actually located. Now, it’s Ambulance 12’s turn. After the dispatch, I didn’t hear or find on OpenMHz any radio transmission from Ambulance 12. I’ll assume that means they found the patient with police at the park at the eastern most intersection of Florida Avenue and R Street NW. I hope the man’s okay, because he sure waited a long time for help.
If history is any guide, there’s a very good chance I’ll hear this same dispatching error again in the coming days and weeks. Just as I’m sure I’ll hear DC Fire & EMS dispatched to 3300 block of Water Street NW when they should be going to the 3300 block of Warder Street NW.
It doesn’t have to be this way. This all could change with proper training, decent quality assurance, procedures that make sense and good management. Sadly, you won’t find any of that in the 911 center for our Nation’s Capitol.