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An apparent DC 911 policy doesn’t let callers cancel even the most minor calls for help. The policy frustrates DC Fire & EMS crews and ties up resources that may be needed for other emergencies. Sources within the Office of Unified Communications — the agency that runs the 911 center — describe the policy as an overreaction to a botched response to a young child who died after being left in a hot car almost a year ago. Since then, the policy has been administered differently among various shifts and dispatchers. It’s unclear if there is an actual written policy supporting the actions of dispatchers.
A response to a person who fell Wednesday evening in Georgetown seems to illustrate an interpretation of the policy that prohibits DC 911 from canceling any EMS or other call already dispatched. The call tied up Ambulance 23 from Foggy Bottom for about 20 minutes.
Less than two minutes after the 7:27 p.m. dispatch, the crew from Ambulance 23 noticed in dispatch notes the caller did not want an ambulance to respond. On a recording from OpenMHz.com an EMT on Ambulance 23 is heard saying, “I’m reading these notes here, on this call we were dispatched on. It says that the patient advised she would go to the hospital herself. Advised that she thought she could speak with a nurse and to disregard service. Would you still like us to proceed to this run ma’am?”
When the ambulance crew reported this to the dispatcher they were greeted with the terse response, “Ambulance 23, continue on the run.” There was no further explanation from the dispatcher at that point. STATter911 has heard this and other similar responses from dispatchers on scores of occasions over many months.
On this call, Ambulance 23 continued, as ordered, to the home near 32nd Street and Q Street NW. About 15 minutes after the initial response, a crew member described to the dispatcher what happened when they showed up at the door — “Be advised, potential patient, or the occupant of the home, denied us access to her house. She stated that she informed communications three or four times that she did not want an ambulance. We again asked her if we could check anybody out and make sure everything’s okay. She reiterated to us that she reiterated to communications …”
Mid-message the dispatcher apparently tried to interrupt Ambulance 23 with an acknowledgement and time check. The message from Ambulance 23 continued and appeared to recount their attempts to have the call canceled — “Ambulance, as the notes have stated before we came and I had asked.”
The next response from the DC 911 dispatcher was quite clear, “We do not cancel 911 calls.”
On the surface, that response indicates a rather unambiguous policy from OUC. In practice, there’s anything but clarity when it comes to canceling 911 calls.
This was a low level response with just a single basic life support ambulance. STATter911 has heard other dispatchers on numerous similar type incidents willing to call back a 911 caller to verify they, in fact, want to cancel the response. Dispatchers have then canceled those calls. Some dispatchers have told fire and EMS crews that they have to receive permission from a 911 supervisor before they can cancel a run. Other dispatchers have said that while supervisors can cancel low priority calls, high priority calls that include paramedic responses can never be canceled. DC Fire & EMS crews never know which version of the policy they’ll get.
There have been times where firefighter, EMTs and paramedics have told dispatchers about people upset that ambulances and fire trucks were sent to their home or apartment despite a request to cancel the response. Besides irritated 911 callers, the policy ties up fire and EMS units, preventing them from responding to incidents where emergency help is actually needed.
STATter911 talked with former and current 911 officials in other jurisdictions who aren’t aware of a policy quite like the one in DC — especially one this inconsistent. They also said some 911 centers have clear policies on specific situations where 911 staff is prohibited from canceling a response. These may include more serious calls, especially where there is a report of a shooting or other act of violence.
As for DC 911’s response, the Office of Unified Communications requires STATter911 to file a Freedom of Information Act request for any information or response about 911 calls. Previous requests were met with a blanket denial of the FOIAs. STATter911 has chosen not to participate in OUC’s continuing efforts to withhold information. If OUC releases information about this policy or report STATter911 will publish it.