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“District’s 911 System: Reforms Needed to Meet Safety Needs” is an important report that finally shines an official light on the workings of the troubled 911 center in the Nation’s Capital. A big thank you and congratulations to DC Auditor Kathy Patterson and her staff. I didn’t know what to expect when Patterson asked me to present my reporting and insight to the Office of the DC Auditor on August 11, 2020. This came after Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Evan Yeats – who, along with other commissioners, had been reading and reacting to my 911 tweets and articles — wrote Patterson requesting the audit. Weeks later a decision was made to audit the Office of Unified Communications (OUC). The report, released today (Tuesday), makes clear what no elected official has said publicly — DC 911 needs fixing.
The report keys in on poor supervision, blown addresses due to inconsistent use of address locating technology, not meeting national standards on dispatch times and quality assurance deficiencies. It also looks closely at four incidents from the summer of 2020 first reported by STATter911.
The issues identified in the report are all things the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) must address to improve 911 in DC. In fact, interim director Cleo Subido’s official response shows she had been moving ahead, addressing the same problems, well before receiving the draft report a month ago from contractor Federal Engineering Inc. (FE).
Reading this report and Subido’s detailed response leaves me with an important question: Why is Subido still just interim director? The report calls for reform and she has already delivered in a way we haven’t seen from previous directors. That doesn’t mean DC 911 has been fixed. Far from it. But Subido has made key personnel changes at the top of the agency, implemented significant policy changes, demanded accountability and made the agency more transparent than ever. It’s a major remake of an agency by an interim director.
While Subido did agree with all the findings and recommendations, she pushed back on one key finding. It’s this one:
Here’s part of Subido’s official response to the report’s recommendations about scripted protocols::
While we agree that integration of scripted protocols is critical to quality emergency call-taking, we are also cognizant of the need for professional call takers to do their jobs rapidly and effectively without excess prescriptive language.
Subido’s reply shows the experience of a veteran 911 professional who knows that scripting is a tool and shouldn’t be an excuse for not having well trained call-takers who know their jobs and their jurisdiction. In fact, Subido’s response helps illustrate one concern I have with the audit: The report doesn’t do a great job of addressing what can’t be clearly shown through data.
The most significant omission is the failure to key in on the problems caused by call-takers and dispatchers not knowing the District of Columbia. While it acknowledges Subido’s March announcement of increasing geography training ten-fold, the report doesn’t discuss the many 911 failures caused by personnel who don’t know DC streets, highways and landmarks. Instead, the report puts great emphasis on call-takers doing a better job using LDTs — Location Determining Technologies. A 911 call-taker must be able to effectively use the latest technology, but they also need to know the city well enough to help 911 callers who don’t know where they’re calling from. Relying solely on technology is a recipe for failure.
The other surprise is that while FE did a good job sharing all of the data related to minimum staffing requirements there was no acknowledgement of the major challenges Subido outlined in a blunt July letter to OUC’s staff. The letter pointed out that leave policies left only 50 percent of the staff eligible for scheduling on many days. That letter was a bit of an elephant smack in the middle of the floor of the 911 center. It highlighted the reality inside OUC in a way a data-driven report can’t.
Despite my minor criticism, this report should not be ignored. The title alone makes it clear reforms are needed, something no elected official — from Mayor Muriel Bowser on down — has acknowledged. The report also shows those reforms are well under way under the leadership of an interim director.
Since Cleo Subido is her appointment, you would think after all of DC 911’s problems Bowser would see this as a win. Up until now, that has not been the case. When reporters ask, the mayor has failed to publicly support her interim director. As I’ve reported previously, leadership in the police and fire departments feel they finally have a partner at 911 — one willing to solve long-standing problems. Will the mayor reward that good work and provide stability for the agency by naming Subido permanent director or will she look elsewhere despite a clear signal there’s finally improvement at DC 911?
UPDATE: Here’s a statement about the audit from OUC interim director Subido:
The Office of Unified Communications (OUC) has taken, and continues to take, positive measures to improve service delivery to our residents. As noted in the recently-released audit report, we have made significant strides in call-taking metrics, maintaining a culture of accountability and excellence, supporting our staff’s mental health, and building collaborative relationships with partner agencies.
While we are pleased with our progress, we recognize that there is more work to be done. We are firmly committed to continuing to improve our critical 911 service provision. Through significant investments in FY22 the OUC will continue recruitment efforts to ensure a full complement of call takers, enhance staff training to further improve the accuracy of address locations, launch a Supervisors Development Initiative aimed at developing our supervisors’ skills to foster a supportive and fair working environment which is committed to operational excellence, and help our team at all levels to provide quality dispatch services to residents across all eight wards.
OUC is, and always will, remain committed to answering the call in times of crisis for those that live, work, or visit the District of Columbia.