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DC 911 is in crisis & no one’s doing a damn thing about it

DC Fire & EMS never knows if the 911 center will even answer the radio

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911 in the nation’s capital is melting down and no one seems to care. Twice in three hours DC Fire & EMS Department battalion chiefs repeatedly called on the radio and no one at DC 911 answered. One of those chiefs was told an ambulance was dispatched to the crash scene he was running to take one of four injured police officers to a hospital. Fifteen minutes later the chief was told another dispatcher mistakenly cleared that ambulance from the crash and sent them to another call. The frustrated chief eventually said police would take themselves to the hospital. Two days ago, DC 911 couldn’t figure out which fire engine just got hit by a tour bus after being clearly told twice that it was Engine 19. They actually dispatched Engine 19 to handle its own serious accident.

No one died and likely no one was harmed by any of these mistakes. But when you look at the missteps in context with five deaths this year where there were serious errors it’s hard not to conclude this is a 911 center in crisis. The situation is so bad that after the most recent death Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart told a Washington Post reporter they were looking at the possibility of letting DC Fire & EMS handle its own dispatching. STATter911 has confirmed that possibility was being seriously considered. Just three days later Mayor Muriel Bowser told a reporter asking about the possible move, “That’s not the case.”

Whether fire and EMS dispatching stays within DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) or goes it’s clear something needs to be done before there’s more tragedy. With the incidents last night and this morning that makes at least six times since April dispatchers have abandoned emergency radio channels for minutes at a time. This issue all but faded away after former interim director Cleo Subido instituted new rules and accountability to make sure radios didn’t go unanswered. Subido described the issue and her solutions in a March 18, 2021 DC Council hearing (video below).

It’s unclear if current acting director Karima Holmes is enforcing the same rules and disciplinary procedures, but a pattern is clearly developing once again under her watch. Holmes had previously been director for five years, leaving in January 2021. In 2020, STATter911 documented 12 times over about seven months where DC Fire & EMS units couldn’t reach dispatchers for minutes at a time. The radio blackouts occurred during routine calls and on incidents where police were urgently needed and ambulance crews requested help for critically ill patients.

The latest

Last night Battalion Chief 3 was in charge of the emergency scene after a police car rolled over injuring four officers in Southeast DC. Radio traffic shows the chief becoming frustrated when dispatchers failed to answer the radio (audio below).

 

Later, the chief requested additional ambulances to the scene. At 8:54 p.m. Ambulance 18 was dispatched. The chief was told he was getting a private ambulance along with Ambulance 18 (audio below).

 

A different dispatcher then mistakenly took Ambulance 18 off the run and they were eventually dispatched to another emergency. That was bad enough, but it was made worse by the mistake not being discovered until 9:11 p.m. Fifteen minutes were lost. DC 911 told the chief they were sending another ambulance from much further away. You can hear the frustration once again in the radio transmissions. Eventually the chief cancelled the ambulance and said DC police would take the officer to the hospital (audio below).

 

Three hours later another chief had problems with OUC. Battalion Chief 5 was handling an odor investigation at Georgetown University. The chief attempted to call a dispatcher five different times in five minutes with no answer before apparently giving up. A dispatcher didn’t respond for another two minutes (audio below).

 

What will it take?

Answering radios, correctly relaying information, and promptly dispatching assistance are some of the routine and basic functions of a 911 center. Somehow DC 911 regularly fails at these basics. STATter911 has asked, but has yet to find another 911 center in the country where emergency radio traffic goes unanswered for minutes at a time.

Despite all of these problems on top of the five deaths, there’s no acknowledgement by DC officials that there’s a 911 crisis. Who has to die before action is taken to fix DC 911?

That’s a question asked often. So far, the five people this year and the nine over the last three years apparently aren’t the right people.

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