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Almost a year after an auditor called for 911 reforms the city has been unable or possibly unwilling to make those changes. A new report from the District of Columbia auditor says DC 911 is making only “minimal progress” on key reforms at the troubled agency. The reforms were called for in an audit last year spawned by STATter911 reporting about significant 911 mistakes and delays in 2019 and 2020, including calls involving four deaths during that period. The audit was requested by a group of advisory neighborhood commissioners. Auditor Kathy Patterson reports, “one recommendation has been completed, there is minimal progress on 24 or 77% of recommendations and two recommendations have no observed progress.” The recommendations cover key issues impacting 911 center supervision, call processing, quality assurance, training, and staffing.
.@OUC_DC acting dir. Holmes just told @Nnamdikid & @tomsherwood there have been only 7 address mistakes in 3 years. That is absolutely NOT true & I documented it in 2020 & can document it again. Read here —https://t.co/uLYAMwVNIQ @politicshour @ODCA_DC
— Dave Statter (@STATter911) September 9, 2022
Since the initial report in 2021 STATter911 has uncovered five more deaths where there were delays caused by 911 mistakes. Four of those deaths occurred in the last six months. For the next phase of its reporting Patterson says they “will also evaluate what transpired on July 3, 2022, and August 9, 2022, when young District residents Sevyn Schatzman-Chase and Aaron Boyd, Jr., respectively, lost their lives.”
Mayor defends 911 acting director
Yesterday (Thursday), DC Mayor Muriel Bowser defended rehiring Karima Holmes to run DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC). Holmes previously led the agency for five years including the period looked at in the initial audit. WJLA-TV investigative producer Gary Scurka asked Bowser, “How can you leave her in charge and frankly how many people have to die?” (Mayor Bowser’s comments in video below.)
According to Bowser, “Karima Holmes brings a level of experience that’s unparalleled in my experience in DC government.” The mayor provided similar support for Holmes after questions about the deaths and 911 issues in 2019 and 2020.
“If you want to pick out or cherry-pick one or two calls you can do that, but thousands of calls where police and fire and EMS are dispatched to DC residents in times of distress”, Bowser said. “What we won’t do is really focus on information that is cherry-picked by one or two people when we have a vast example of the type of work, stressful work, that they do every day.”
“What I know is that some people who are reporting on OUC are more interested in talking about mistakes and Karima Holmes than they are in talking about possible mistakes in other people. I don’t really know what that’s about but I do recognize why that is happening.”
Here’s what that’s about
I hate to assume anything, but since I’m the reporter who uncovered the nine deaths over three years there’s a decent chance I may be the “some people who are reporting on OUC” that Mayor Bowser mentions. Criticizing my work is fair game and It’s a legitimate question to ask why much of my reporting has centered on DC 911/OUC mistakes and Karima Holmes. Here are some answers.
My advocacy journalism focuses on safety issues impacting the region that are greatly uncovered by the local news media. My work has included coverage of poor performance and communications with area fire departments by Metro during rail emergencies, highway issues in Virginia where there have been a high number of collisions, and recurring 911 problems.
While I’ve done stories on other 911 center problems and related deaths locally and around the country, the mayor is correct about most of my 911 stories being about DC and, in turn, Karima Holmes. No argument there. Unlike the mayor, my experience is that nine deaths in three years where there were delays is significant and tragic for a 911 center. Even one as busy as DC’s. Five of the deaths involved children, including two newborns and an infant. Karima Holmes was running the 911 center during eight of those deaths, including four this year. (NOTE: I also covered the one death that occurred under interim director Cleo Subido.)
In September 2020, when asked about my stories Holmes told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi, “it is abundantly clear that Dave Statter is making a concerted effort to fool the public into thinking there’s a systematic problem with D.C. 911. There is not.” Since then, the audit clearly confirmed Karima Holmes is wrong — there are systemic problems at OUC.
Mayor Bowser bringing Holmes back after the audit ensured that Holmes would be a focus of the news coverage. A handful of DC Council members have made it clear they won’t vote to confirm Holmes. In addition, as I’ve shown repeatedly, Holmes has a record of not being transparent with the news media, the public and even the families of those who died. (Read more here and here.)
While I’ve covered 911 for four decades, some of the problems in DC are unique. This includes the daily failure of dispatchers to recognize and relay crucial updates to responding fire, EMS and police. These updates are about address changes, critical safety information about potential dangers and even the fact that a run has been cancelled by the 911 caller.
Another unusual situation with DC 911 that has resulted in news coverage is fire and EMS dispatchers leaving emergency radio channels unmonitored for minutes at a time. This is an enormous safety issue for the public, firefighters and EMS. I’ve talked with 911 workers and directors from around the region and the country. No one can show me another center where emergency radio channels are frequently ignored or relaying updated information is such an enormous challenge.
Here’s hoping I’ve explained to Mayor Bowser “what that’s about” and that maybe she too will soon see what I see at OUC — a 911 center in crisis.
As you take in this new report and Mayor Bowser’s comments please keep in mind the nine people who were met by unnecessary delays from DC 911 in their final moments: