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DC 911 has sent fire & EMS to wrong addresses more this year than the last 5 years combined

Do the numbers show a dramatic increase in errors or is it possible there was under-reporting in documents submitted to the DC Council?

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DC 911 dispatched fire and EMS to the wrong location at least 10 times more this year than its director reported last year. That conclusion comes from comparing official documents submitted to the DC Council and radio traffic collected by STATter911. This dramatic increase raises questions about standards 911 officials have used to compile dispatch errors.

The director of DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) annually submits written answers to questions from the DC Council about 911 and 311 operations. The questions come from Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Charles Allen. Allen and his predecessor Kenyan McDuffie have both attempted to learn the number of “911 calls dispatched to the wrong location or for the wrong purpose”. In preparation for a late January oversight hearing, OUC Director Karima Holmes reported to Allen that during the entire FY19 only three fire and EMS calls and one police call were sent to the wrong address or for the wrong purpose. Despite being requested to do so, Holmes did not provide causes for those four errors.

From January 23, 2020 submission by OUC Director Karima Holmes to Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Charles Allen

We are now in FY20. So far, I’ve already documented 32 times where OUC misdirected DC Fire and EMS. My list was created through regular listening to radio traffic along with time-stamped recordings from the website OpenMHz.com. The list only includes fire and EMS because almost all police radio traffic is encrypted and can’t be similarly monitored by the public. (The list of incidents is it at the bottom of this post with links to the related radio traffic,)

In each of the 32 fire and EMS incidents, radio traffic clearly shows OUC re-dispatching the calls minutes later to the correct location. Often, the correct address was miles away. Because I don’t monitor the scanner 24-hours a day and have not logged every wrong location I’ve heard, 32 is not an accurate number. The real number of wrong addresses is likely significantly higher. In addition, my monitoring didn’t begin in earnest until February. Since that time, I’ve logged an average of more than four wrong addresses a month.

Dispatching an incorrect address doesn’t necessarily mean the 911 staff made mistakes. Wrong addresses are also caused by 911 callers uncertain of the location of their emergency. I’ve contacted OUC many times to determine reasons for mistaken dispatches. OUC’s public information officer has not acknowledged the requests, including specific questions submitted for this article.

After local news coverage about an early August dispatch where OUC sent fire and EMS to the wrong marina for a triple drowning, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser was asked by reporter Tom Sherwood (below) about my reporting. Bowser responded, “I am not going to go down that rabbit hole with Dave Statter.”

 

Included in my list are two confirmed cardiac arrest cases. Early in the morning of May 17, DC Fire & EMS was sent to 3100 Wisconsin Avenue NW for a reported childbirth at home. The correct location was an apartment building at 4100 Massachusetts Avenue NW. When EMS finally arrived at the apartment — almost 45 minutes after the initial call — the newborn wasn’t breathing, and its heart had stopped. I’ve been unable to confirm if the child survived. On June 5, a 59-year-old woman was reported in cardiac arrest. DC Fire & EMS was dispatched by OUC to a home in the 400 block of Oglethorpe Street NW. The correct location was the same house number and street, but in the Northeast quadrant of the city. The woman died.

More recently, OUC dispatched DC Fire & EMS to wrong locations at least twice over the last seven days. On August 23, someone jumped or fell off the 7th Street overpass in Southwest, landing on I-395S below. OUC dispatched the call to a location that doesn’t exist — a 7th Street exit in Southeast along I-695 or I-295. Two days later, OUC dispatched a double shooting call to 4201 Wheeler Road off the 1000 block of Southern Avenue. The shooting victims were actually 4.5 miles away, in the 4400 block of Southern Avenue (recording below).

 

The list I’ve compiled doesn’t include two other cardiac arrest calls sent to incorrect addresses. They were revealed by Holmes during a June 9 budget hearing. Holmes told Allen that one of those errors was the fault of the caller and the other was a mistake by the 911 call-taker. Holmes did not provide additional details other than saying the incidents occurred pre-COVID or in the early days of the pandemic.

Last year, Holmes listed four fire and EMS calls and zero police calls dispatched to the wrong location or for the wrong purpose during FY18. In that submission, Holmes more fully answered the question, providing the cause for each mistaken dispatch (below). Two of the four were listed as “OUC Operator Error”.

From February 1, 2019 submission by OUC Director Karima Holmes to Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Charles Allen

While I don’t have my own database for FY18 or FY19, there’s a lot to be skeptical about in the numbers provided to the DC Council for those years. For example, in FY19 OUC dispatched police and fire to 702,591 calls. Three errant fire and EMS calls and one police call reported for that year means only .00057 percent of all 911 calls were dispatched to the wrong location or for the wrong purpose.

Those stats bring up a number of questions. Is an error rate that low realistic? Forgetting the possibility of OUC mistakes, is it likely that no more than four 911 callers provided an incorrect address during the entire 12 months? What constitutes a wrong address in OUC’s eyes? How are such errors documented within OUC?

The same question about wrong location or wrong purpose has been asked of Karima Holmes every year since her arrival in January of 2016. DC Council documents show Holmes reported five total for FY15, six in FY16 and what the report called two “blown addresses” in FY17. No year comes close to the 32 I’ve compiled, so far, for FY20.

In 2008, OUC was still in its infancy. It’s director at the time, Janice Quintana, was quoted by reporter Arthur Delaney in the Washington City Paper as saying, “Our accuracy rate is 99.99 percent.” Current DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson then ran the Judiciary Committee and didn’t let that claim go unchallenged. Mendelson responded,  “Any time I hear somebody say 99.9 percent are accurate, that sounds to me like a way of trying to cover up that there are too many mistakes.”

Twelve years later, such skepticism is nowhere to be found. Current Judiciary Chair Allen somehow accepts Holmes listing only 21 such errors in dispatching fire, EMS and police over five years. That’s 21 out of more than three million fire, police and EMS calls dispatched.

The radio recordings for each of the mistaken dispatches I’ve listed are quite clear. No ambiguity. They don’t lie. When they occurred, I posted all but a few of them on Twitter and tagged DC officials. No one in the DC government — including at OUC — challenged their accuracy. If these 32 wrongly dispatched calls don’t encourage Allen to take another look at Holmes’ paperwork from previous years, it will mean he accepts her statistics as accurate. If Allen is confident in the numbers Holmes submitted, that leaves bigger questions. What will Charles Allen do about getting to the bottom of this sudden, unexplained, dramatic increase in bad fire and EMS dispatches from OUC?

Every dispatch to a wrong address means someone had to wait longer than they should to get the emergency help that was requested. Promptly and accurately dispatching fire, EMS and police is 911’s core mission. When that doesn’t occur, a properly functioning 911 center will immediately investigate what went wrong and, if necessary, take corrective action. It should all be documented. I’m hoping, upon reading this, Allen and Interim Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Dr. Roger Mitchell Jr. will immediately ask to see the reports for each of the 32 incidents listed below.

Remember, 32 is a floor and not a ceiling. The real numbers are likely considerably higher. Let’s hope Mr. Allen and Dr. Mitchell will also get some answers as to why the number this year is so much higher than what OUC’s has officially reported for the previous five years combined.

Fire & EMS calls dispatched to the wrong address by OUC

Audio recordings for each of these 32 incidents confirm DC Fire & EMS units were initially dispatched to an incorrect address by the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) with the call later sent to the correct location. The links for each call will take you to the radio traffic for that response. The causes for most of these mistaken dispatches — whether errors by OUC staff or 911 callers — have not been publicly shared by OUC.

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