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It took more than 30-minutes before fire and EMS found a patient last Tuesday (January 19) after a 911 call reported CPR in progress along the scenic Capital Crescent Trail in Northwest Washington. When firefighters finally arrived, the person was dead. While it’s not known if a faster response would have changed the outcome, radio traffic provides evidence DC 911 contributed to delays getting emergency help to the scene.
The issues with the Capital Crescent Trail response — highlighted below — are consistent with problems seen in numerous Office of Unified Communications (OUC) calls documented by STATter911 and with previous emergencies along trails and inside DC’s parks. For example, in 2018, after a District resident reported a fire, vandalism and assault near Kingman Island along the Anacostia River, OUC admitted to mistakes made by a 911 call-taker. In a comment about the Kingman Island call to the website popville.com, an OUC spokesperson outlined steps the agency was taking to meet “customer service standards” when handling responses to landmarks and other points of interest. The January 19 call shows almost three-years later OUC still struggles to meet those same “customer service standards”.
A request was made to OUC with a copy to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Dr. Roger Mitchell for further details and comment on this story. So far, no response has been received. Since February 25, 2020, OUC has failed to acknowledge any STATter911 request for comment.
The dispatched location didn’t make sense
It’s important to acknowledge it will almost always take longer to get fire and EMS to a remote area such as a park or along a trail compared to responding to a city street corner. But this incident shows additional time was lost because OUC dispatched the call in a way that could mean the patient was located almost anywhere along the approximately seven-mile portion of the Capital Crescent Trail that’s in the District of Columbia.
The call was initially dispatched by OUC at 10:02 am (audio above). A dispatcher reported a person in cardiac arrest was on the “Capital Crescent Trail across from Canal Road and MacArthur Boulevard”. The first problem with that location is there’s no intersection of “Canal Road and MacArthur Boulevard”. They don’t meet. Both roads generally run parallel to the trail — a former B & O railroad branch along the C & O Canal & Potomac River — for most of its length. What this means is that OUC provided fire and EMS no clue where along the seven miles the patient was located.
More important, OUC’s staff gave no indication they were even aware of what’s obvious to anyone who knows the area — the dispatched location lacked crucial information. At the very least, a dispatcher should have told the responding DC Fire & EMS units OUC is still working to pinpoint the location. For OUC to believe this was an adequate description to lead DC Fire & EMS to the patient shows call-takers and dispatchers lack knowledge of the Capital Crescent Trail and the geography of the area.
Fire & EMS asked for help and a better location
At 10:04 am, Engine 29 told OUC they would take the call for Engine 5, since they were closer to the trail. Immediately, Engine 29 requested OUC to dispatch Truck 5 along with two gators (ATVs) from the firehouse the two fire companies share on MacArthur Boulevard (audio below).
A big question is why these ATVs weren’t initially dispatched by OUC to such a high priority call in a remote area. Quick access to this and other trails in Northwest is one reason why DC Fire & EMS keeps the gators at that firehouse. Failing to immediately dispatch these specialized vehicles on a call where it’s obvious they’ll likely be needed loses precious minutes reaching an ill or injured person.
Seconds after Engine 29’s request, EMS 5 also asked for the gators, along with a battalion chief and the use of a separate radio channel to coordinate operations. In addition, Engine 29 also made clear a better location was needed. Each of these requests appeared to be initially ignored by OUC.
OUC failed to send help right away
A puzzling part of this call is why OUC delayed sending the help requested by Engine 29 and EMS 5. The radio transmissions indicate dispatchers may have forgotten or not understood what was being asked of them.
At 10:08 am, OUC called back to EMS 5 asking the EMS supervisor to explain again what he had asked for more than three-minutes earlier. First, there was a request from OUC on the main dispatch channel for EMS 5 to come up on another channel and “advise what do you have, what you’re requesting.” At the same time, the dispatcher on the EMS radio channel — where the initial requests were made — asked, “EMS 5 do you want an alternate channel for the chief and the truck?” EMS 5 then repeated the same things he asked for earlier.
At the same time, Engine 29 told OUC, “If you are still on the line with the caller, can you have them give us a better location? That trail’s long and MacArthur and Canal doesn’t have an entrance. ” OUC responded, “The call-taker has hung up from the caller.” Engine 29 then stated the obvious, “Okay, I need you to call them back.”
A key question is why the initial call-taker or any other OUC staff in contact with the caller would allow the call to end without helping the caller identify exactly where along the trail they were located. It’s always possible the caller was panicked and/or hung up on 911. But recent history has shown many DC 911 call-takers and dispatchers don’t have the knowledge of local roads, landmarks and geography to assist callers who struggle to describe their location.
Help finally sent
It took approximately four-minutes before OUC sent the two gators requested by both Engine 29 and EMS 5. It took another minute before the battalion chief was dispatched on the call.
About seven-minutes passed before OUC complied with EMS 5’s other request and made sure all responding units switched to the same radio channel (audio above). There’s nothing unusual or special about any of these requests by EMS 5 and Engine 29. They’re routine. OUC’s handling of each should be measured in seconds — not minutes.
The chief tried to translate OUC’s notes
OUC’s dispatchers often fail to alert responding units by radio of important new information they’ve learned from 911 callers. Most of the time it’s left to firefighters, paramedics and EMTs to discover this information on their own. They do so by scrolling through what are often lengthy call-taker notes while still responding to the emergency. These notes are received via tablets connected to OUC’s dispatch computer. This practice has caused many delays in getting fire and EMS to the correct location.
In this case, there was a crucial clue within OUC’s notes. It was left to fire and EMS to find that information rather than the dispatcher alerting fire and ems by radio. It was discovered at 10:23 am (audio above) when Battalion 5 noticed an update in the notes saying, “The caller states they’re a half a mile away from the Alexandria Aqueduct.” The chief then asked, “Is that going to be closer to Thompson’s Boathouse than Fletcher’s where we currently are?” OUC replied, “Standby Canal Road Command, I’ll check with the provider of the incoming information.”
The Alexandria Aqueduct is the only portion that remains of a 175-year-old bridge that once crossed the Potomac at Georgetown. What is now Arlington County on the other side of the river, was then the City of Alexandria. The bridge remnants are a landmark on the Capitol Crescent Trail. As the battalion chief noted, it also provided a direction where the patient was located from where fire and EMS began their search.
OUC suddenly believed the call was in Virginia
This next bit of radio traffic (audio below) again shows the people who were working at OUC during this call didn’t know where the Capitol Crescent Trail is located or have any real understanding of the geography and landmarks in the area. What the dispatcher asked at 10:31 — almost 30-minutes into the incident — is totally baffling: “Communications to Canal Road Command, are you on the DC side or Virginia side?”
Why would OUC even ask that question? The call wasn’t dispatched to the Virginia side of the Potomac. The Capital Crescent Trail is in DC and Maryland, but doesn’t run through Virginia (as you hear the Fireboat explain in the radio transmission). The incident commander and none of the responding units said anything about sending fire and EMS units to Virginia. Why would OUC think anyone responding on this call was in Virginia?
A few seconds later, there’s an answer to why that question was asked — not that the answer makes sense. The dispatcher told Canal Road Command, “I’m getting information you need to go to the Virginia side.” The chief then told OUC to get the Arlington County Fire Department headed that way.
The patient is found, but not in Virginia
Within seconds of OUC’s claim the person in cardiac arrest was in Virginia, Canal Road Command reported the patient had been found — in DC — by one of the gators operated by the crew from Truck 5 (audio below).
The correct location was midway between Fletcher’s Boathouse and Thompson’s Boathouse. By my calculations that’s very close to being a half mile west of the Alexandria Aqueduct. Canal Road Command reported the patient was dead on arrival.
Parks and recreation aren’t OUC’s strong point
Long before there was an OUC, DC 911 sometimes struggled with emergencies in parks and along trails. A 1987 column by The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen titled, “At 911, they haven’t heard of Rock Creek Parkway” documented Cohen’s attempts to get help for a downed motorcyclist. The 911 call-taker — then under the direction of the DC Police Department — wanted Cohen to provide a hundred block and then said Rock Creek Parkway wasn’t in the dispatch computer.
The 2004 birth of a new agency, DC’s Office of Unified Communications, was supposed to fix these problems. It hasn’t and there’s little indication OUC’s 911 staff has a clear understanding of the landmarks and geography of the many recreation areas DC offers. In addition to the previously mentioned Kingman Island call, here are some similar OUC stories that made news:
- January 26, 2011: Reporter Mark Segraves showed how an OUC dispatcher wasted 14 minutes trying to figure out how to enter a deadly crash into the computer that occurred on Military Road over Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park. The OUC director at the time blamed the problem on a computer glitch rather than the agency’s failure to properly train staff.
- August 29, 2016: Another Mark Segraves report. This time an OUC dispatcher lost six minutes before dispatching a call for a man trapped in his car under a fallen tree on Rock Creek Parkway near Connecticut Avenue. Just as with Richard Cohen’s call almost 20-years earlier, 911 wanted a hundred block on Rock Creek Parkway.
- August 2, 2020: Reporter Peter Hermann with The Washington Post followed-up on a STATter911 report on a dispatcher misdirecting DC Fire & EMS to a triple drowning. The land units were sent to the Anacostia Community Boathouse on the Anacostia River instead of the Capital Cove Marina, five miles away on the Potomac River.
Listen to the people who use the parks
As I wrap this up, instead of my usual attempt to summarize all that ails DC 911, I’m going to leave you with the words of DC residents. Each of these quotes comes from comments in reaction to the email to popville.com from the man who witnessed the 2018 Kingman Island incident. Yes, that was three-years-ago, but the Capital Crescent Trail call just last week shows you still can’t rely on 911 if you need emergency help while in a DC park or along a trail.
“I have found that in dealing with DC dispatch they have no earthly concept of this city beyond its addresses.”
“Being a city with so many parks and world famous landmarks, it amazes me that dispatch has the issues it does with locations such as Kingman Island. God forbid you break your ankle in the Arboretum, they would be waiting by the visitors center until dusk because ‘the parking lot south of the old columns’ would just be too much for dispatch to handle.
Their job is stressful as F*, they aren’t trained adequately, and they don’t have the tools they need to do their jobs to the standard that citizens reasonably demand. The whole OUC is a flaming dumpster fire, but that isn’t the poor call taker’s fault.
they shouldn’t be allowed on the phones without demonstrating a pretty comprehensive set of skills that allow them to parse often-panicked callers’ communications and accurately direct responders to the scene. The fact that so many have problems doing this is an indictment of OUC indeed.
There have been problems with 9-11 calls from the Met Branch Trail and even from the Navy Yard during the shooting (DC didn’t have the street names for streets in the Navy Yard).
There’s no reason in the world for our first responders not to know EVERY landmark in this city.
The response of the initial call-taker though was beyond the pale: she was patronizing, dismissive, and took far too long to listen carefully to my description of where I was. Time was wasted for no reason, other than her misguided belief that I was incorrectly reporting my location. Had someone been seriously injured, her behavior would have been even more egregious. (from the Kingman Island 911 caller)