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The 911 center in our Nation’s Capital dispatched EMS units to the wrong quadrant of the city three separate times during just one call yesterday (Tuesday). These mistakes occurred a day after DC 911 spent 15 minutes dispatching, then canceling and then dispatching again, two different ambulances to the same EMS run. Both of these incidents reflect common errors at the DC Office of Unified Communications (OUC) and illustrate the chaos and confusion caused by OUC’s constant mishandling of 911 calls.
Northwest or Northeast?
Yesterday’s problems (recording above) began at 5:50 pm when OUC dispatched Ambulance 3 to 7th Street and H Street in Northeast for a man having a seizure. Ambulance 3 didn’t find a patient at that intersection. The dispatcher attempted to contact the caller. At 5:56 pm, Ambulance 3 noticed a reference in the call history to the location possibly being 14 blocks away, at 7th and H Northwest. The dispatcher, looking at the same information, also realized there was a conflict over the quadrant of the city. Ambulance 3 said they would check out 7th and H in Northwest.
Let’s pause for a moment to explain a couple of things. Dispatching to the wrong quadrant of DC is a fairly common mistake at OUC. Last month, OUC dispatched DC Fire & EMS units to the wrong quadrant on a cardiac arrest call where a 59-year-old woman died. It’s not unusual to have this occur multiple times each day Sometimes it happens due to an error by the caller and sometimes it’s a mistake by the call-taker. And then sometimes, like this incident, there’s conflicting information about the location that OUC hasn’t bothered to reconcile. Instead, they leave it to DC Fire & EMS to figure things out. This often forces firefighters, paramedics and EMTs to play dispatcher.
The other important point you should know as you listen to the recording and view the channel indications and time stamps from OpenMHz.com is about the radio channels used by DC Fire & EMS. EMS calls on the east side of Washington, DC — Southeast and Northeast — are handled on Channel 11 (shown as EMS 5 in the recording). EMS responses on the west side — Southwest and Northwest — are on Channel 12 (shown as EMS 6). This is done to prevent overloading a single dispatcher.
Once Ambulance 3 got to 7th and H Northwest and found their patient, the crew switched from Channel 11 to Channel 12 or EMS 5 to EMS 6. It’s also when Ambulance 3 called for assistance, first asking for an Advanced Life Support unit and then an EMS supervisor. And it’s also when DC 911 compounded its first mistake by doing the exact same thing two more times — sending units to the wrong location. Medic 7, followed by EMS 2, were both dispatched to 7th and H in Northeast.
Back to yesterday’s emergency. Medic 7 and EMS 2 dutifully headed to 7th and H Northeast, as dispatched, even though Ambulance 3 and the patient were in Northwest. It took EMS 2 to realize something was amiss. As you can hear in the radio traffic, EMS 2 asked the dispatcher why they were going to 7th and H Northeast to assist Ambulance 3 when he can see via the automatic vehicle locator that Ambulance 3 is at 7th and H Northwest. Initially, the Channel 11 dispatcher insisted Northeast was the correct location. While responding to Northeast, EMS 2 saw on the tablet in his vehicle the address for the run was suddenly changed to Northwest. No one at OUC attempted to radio EMS 2 or Medic 7 with the updated location. EMS 2 then challenged the Channel 2 dispatcher about the location change. He was just as confused as the first dispatcher, but decided to confirm the correct location with Ambulance 3. Of course, Ambulance 3 responded it was 7th and H Northwest.
There’s no indication from the radio traffic what happened to the patient or the medical reason Ambulance 3’s crew called for help. What is clear is that these mistakes occurred because DC 911 failed to resolve an obvious location conflict with the initial 911 call. Dispatchers then compounded that error by failing to promptly update the call information when the correct location was determined by Ambulance 3.
More OUC confusion
On Monday, a day before the 7th & H debacle, OUC created chaos and confusion in its handling of another EMS run (recording above). At 7:03 pm, Ambulance 30B was dispatched to the 4600 block of Benning Road Southeast for a man down. Five minutes later, at 7:08 pm, Ambulance 30 was dispatched to the same location. The call was also for a man down. Despite software that’s supposed to help prevent duplicate dispatches, it’s a consistent problem at DC 911. In one recent 24-hour period I documented 18 times when OUC dispatched duplicate runs.
Rather than try to explain this one, listen to the confusion that results when Ambulance 30 is canceled off the duplicate call, then re-dispatched to it it, only to be canceled again. It took 15-minutes from the time of the initial dispatch until this was finally straightened out.
OUC stopped responding to my questions months ago, so we have no explanation as to why these and scores of other dispatch failures I’ve documented since October occur. As I have long acknowledged, mistakes are going to happen at a 911 center. OUC just keeps making the same ones with no indication anyone in charge is addressing these systemic issues.