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Is it a new day or just more of the same at DC 911?

Wednesday's hearing will tell us if Heather McGaffin's serious about transparency & accountability or whether the DC Council cares if she is

OUC acting director Heather McGaffin (l) & Council member Brooke Pinto

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Heather McGaffin is saying the right things. She did so again last week during a press event inside the 911 center. What we don’t know is whether McGaffin means it or is just reading from the same old DC 911 script that always emphasizes the words “transparency” and “accountability.” But an answer could come this week.

A DC Council hearing Wednesday may tell us a lot about 911’s future under McGaffin. Is the new leader of the Office of Unified Communications serious about reforming and restoring confidence in the long-troubled agency? Or is McGaffin just another caretaker for the dangerous status quo?

In addition, the hearing is the first where Council member Brooke Pinto chairs the committee that handles OUC oversight. With lives in the balance every minute of every day, the public needs a dogged reform advocate running the Committee on Judiciary & Public Safety.

It took some time for previous chair Charles Allen to fully grasp how bad things were inside the 911 center. In the end, Allen made an enormous contribution. He successfully led the charge against the re-confirmation of acting director Karima Holmes. STATter911 documented 911 mistakes and delays surrounding 10 deaths during a little more than three of the six years Holmes ran the agency. (Note: An 11th death occurred in 2022 under interim director Cleo Subido.)

It was a big step and made an important statement when council members pushed back so strongly against Mayor Muriel Bowser reappointing Holmes. Now, we’ll see if Pinto is ready to move this 911 advocacy forward.

  • Will Pinto set the tone, insisting on public answers and detailed information from McGaffin about a series of recent delayed responses to bad addresses? Some were for cardiac arrests and other critical calls.
  • Will the new chair demand clarity about daily staffing and its impact on the most common 911 complaint — getting the dreaded recording and waiting for 911 to answer?
  • DC 911 is the home of the city’s real first responders and the local agency with the most direct impact on the health and well-being of the public. With so many other important public safety issues, will Pinto treat OUC with the seriousness and priority it deserves?

Now, the specifics

Heather McGaffin can immediately show she’s serious about transparency and accountability. Her opening statement Wednesday should explain a series of blown addresses and delayed responses during the last month. In some cases DC Fire and EMS was dispatched to the wrong location on critical calls. This includes the cardiac arrest of a newborn child. Here’s the list:

Maybe Council member Pinto already requested details from McGaffin about this list. If McGaffin isn’t volunteering, let’s see if Pinto demands public explanations about each of these calls. The word “public” is key. McGaffin’s predecessor routinely claimed ignorance when questioned about specific 911 calls during hearings and other appearances. Holmes would often supply the answers in an email to the committee chairman. The public rarely saw those responses.

At this point, STATter911 makes no claims about whether these bad addresses and delays were due to errors made inside OUC or by the 911 caller. OUC instituted a new policy in late 2022 that STATter911 must file a Freedom of Information Act request when asking for information about 911 calls. OUC then completely denies those requests with dubious claims that releasing any information is “an invasion of personal privacy.”  STATter911’s new policy is to not waste its time with OUC’s new policy. Instead, STATter911 shares these calls publicly in hopes Pinto and others can get answers.

When 911 doesn’t answer

As mentioned, the most common 911 complaint is failing to immediately get a live person on the line. 911 changed dramatically for all once we became a society where everyone had a cell phone in their pocket. It’s almost impossible for 911 centers to adequately staff to handle these surges and avoid recordings. The 911 surges routinely occur following emergencies seen or heard by a lot of people. Dozens call a 911 center after a highway crash or a shooting. While 911 recordings are universal it also shouldn’t provide a blanket excuse for DC 911.

Clarity on 911 staffing is needed to fully understand what’s behind a complaint like this one on Twitter. DC resident Alan Wehler wrote about delays getting 911 to answer after a nearby shooting.

It has been known since at least July 2021 OUC has serious staffing issues. That’s when interim director Cleo Subido emailed her staff about being unable to fill shifts. Subido wrote that only half the people employed by OUC are available to work on any given day. Since then, both Holmes and McGaffin said there are dozens of unfilled positions in 911 operations. How much of a relationship is there between staffing challenges and the problems Wehler and many others face waiting for someone to answer 911?

Getting McGaffin to answer these two questions may provide some answers:

  • What’s the minimum staffing for 911 call-takers on each shift?
  • What percentage of the time does DC 911 fail to meet minimum staffing for call-takers?

An inability to meet minimum staffing for 911 call-takers can both increase the number of times where DC 911 is unable to immediately answer the phone and extends how long those periods last.

Solving the staffing problem won’t happen quickly. Public safety hiring is a problem most everywhere right now. This is important for the public to understand. That’s why Pinto should insist OUC publicly provide daily staffing records. Let everyone who calls 911 learn whether DC 911 is short-staffed on the day they had to wait for a call-taker to answer. This is something every 911 center should consider. Stop hiding today’s unfortunate reality from the people you serve.

Hint to all: Start paying 911 workers better, provide improved benefits (Montgomery County, MD doesn’t even provide a pension for its 911 staff) and a real career experience. Invest in the people and not just the technology.

The audit

The Office of the DC Auditor helped the DC Council finally focus on 911. The dismissive handling of the audit by the Bowser administration — including bringing back Holmes — helped fire up Council member Allen and others. The DC Auditor’s initial and follow-up reports are important documents. Great work by Kathy Patterson and staff.

McGaffin appears prepared not to take the audit lightly. She told reporters last week that OUC has now followed through on 70 percent of the audit’s recommendations. McGaffin even generally admitted there are serious problems at DC 911. This is something Mayor Bowser and her administration have long avoided saying.

The audit does not cover all that ails DC 911. It’s important that council members understand this. Even if McGaffin and Pinto provide expert leadership using the audit as a blueprint, it won’t be enough. The systemic problems are too many and too deep.

Celebrating 20 years

Next year, on October 1, is OUC’s twentieth anniversary. After two troubled decades it’s time to reevaluate and take a more comprehensive and strategic look at DC 911. And, as I’ve previously written, there’s precedent for this.

In 2006, there was outrage over the emergency response after New York Times correspondent David Rosenbaum was attacked in his Upper Northwest neighborhood. The problems on that day weren’t at OUC, then just 14 months old. An inspector general’s report discovered serious issues with the response by fire, EMS and police. After Rosenbaum’s death, his family made the creation of the EMS Task Force a key element of their legal settlement with the city.

As often happens with government solutions, the task force was not perfect. The fire chief leading it limited the group’s scope and ignored some of the noted EMS experts. The good news is that even with its flaws the task force put DC EMS on a much-improved path. The bad news is DC 911’s continuing poor performance is a major burden on EMS. You can’t fully fix EMS without fixing 911.

The 11 deaths STATter911 uncovered where there were significant 911 mistakes or delays have occurred since August of 2019. This statistic doesn’t include the three recent cardiac arrest calls. These 11 deaths have never been as important to DC’s top elected leaders, the IG, editorial writers, columnists and news editors as the loss of David Rosenbaum.

Billie Shepperd is a longtime DC resident whose daughter Sheila’s cardiac arrest was met with a major 911 failure in 2020. Shepperd firmly believes 911 hasn’t received the attention EMS did after Rosenbaum’s death because the “right person hasn’t died yet.”

Let’s correct this tragic oversight now with the creation of a DC 911 Task Force. A group of real 911, fire, EMS and police professionals focused on restructuring 911. The agency must serve the public better. As much as it struggles with with just the daily routine of emergency response, imagine how OUC will handle the next major crisis. DC 911 must get past its failing status quo.

A task force providing a new path forward may be the best way to celebrate OUC’s 20th anniversary. It could also finally deliver a meaningful response to the Shepperds and other grieving families DC 911 failed during their loved ones final moments.


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