DC 911 boss explains why 911 calls aren’t answered — ‘I just don’t have enough people’

DC mayor was warned of staffing issues by interim 911 director two years ago

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While she won’t talk with reporters, DC 911 director Heather McGaffin has confirmed to community groups that 911 calls aren’t being promptly answered. It’s something many residents and visitors with emergencies have already experienced. Even DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson recently confirmed it can take many minutes to get a 911 call-taker on the line. McGaffin told an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting last month the main reason is very clear, “I just don’t have enough people.” (watch above)

The recently appointed director at DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) is having the same problem one of her predecessors first reported in 2021. In fact, today is the second anniversary of STATter911 first reporting Cleo Subido’s complaint that only half of the authorized positions at the 911 center were available to work on any given day. In a blunt letter to staff obtained by STATter911, Subido blamed the problem on vacancies and DC’s leave policies.

At the time, Subido told STATter911 she wrote the letter out of frustration, claiming she was unable to get then Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart and Mayor Muriel Bowser to address the staffing issue. The email followed an extremely short-staffed Independence Day where Subido came to work to help answer 911 calls. In addition, Subido has since outlined some of those efforts to sound the alarm about staffing in a whistleblower lawsuit filed in March. Subido was transferred to the DC Fire & EMS Department in early 2022 after not getting the permanent OUC job. She was then later fired.

Now, current director McGaffin faces very similar staffing issues, except the impact appears to be much more severe. McGaffin told Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B on June 12 she was missing an entire shift of call-takers and the staffing problems “are building”. According to McGaffin, “We are short staffed. And so even though I’m using overtime and I have mandatory overtime in place, unfortunately I just don’t have enough people. So, if you know of anybody who is interested, please, please send them our way.”

McGaffin also blamed other factors for the current delays responding to 911 calls saying, “Calls are more complex and we’re staying on the phone longer with callers than we have originally.”

McGaffin says 28 of 109 call-taker positions are unfilled. During the meeting she outlined new efforts to hire 911 staff. This includes keeping the position for telecommunicator continuously open and expediting bringing new hires on board.

McGaffin also is encouraging people on the periphery of an incident to text 911 rather than call because of the staffing shortage. McGaffin used as an example a shooting where someone only hears gunshots. She says in that case it would be okay to text in an effort to keep call-takers available.

In 2021, Subido claimed she had no similar support from the Bowser administration to address 911 staffing. Here are excerpts from the lawsuit outlining staffing problems Subido claims she discovered while leading OUC:

She (Subido) found that OUC was understaffed and that staff lacked adequate supervision, that absenteeism was extreme, and that staff lacked adequate training.

Ms. Subido concluded that both staffing levels and supervisory ratios, training, and dispatch times did not align with national standards

Additionally, Ms. Subido used the tools provided by NENA and APCO to calculate the staffing needs required to meet national standards and determined that, during the day, at least eighteen people should be manning communication lines, approximately triple the number of staff typically working at any given time. Thus, there existed insufficient staffing levels to provide adequate communications coverage.

A few weeks after her email to the 911 staff, reporters Mark Segraves and Tom Sherwood asked Mayor Bowser about Subido’s complaints and her future. The mayor offered no support for Subido and responded to the question by praising the work of OUC’s staff and the city’s hiring efforts. (watch below)


Sources in the Bowser administration said at the time Subido’s bluntness and openness about staffing and other problems in the agency helped lead to Bowser replacing her about six months after the July email. That’s when Bowser brought back former director Karima Holmes. Holmes had previously run the agency from 2016 to 2021. Last December, Bowser was forced to withdraw the nomination of Holmes after learning the DC Council would not confirm her appointment.

In her lawsuit, Subido claims that both her email and testimony about staffing problems before the DC Council upset Mayor Bowser:

Deputy Mayor Geldart told Ms. Subido that Mayor Bowser was upset Ms. Subido’s email sharing her serious staffing concerns at OUC was leaked and made public

Based on her communications with the Deputy Mayor, Ms. Subido also understood that the Mayor was unhappy that Ms. Subido provided such comprehensive and accurate information to the D.C. Council regarding the failure to adequately staff the communication lines. Following this testimony, the Mayor’s office began to isolate Ms. Subido and refused to engage in meaningful communication with her. For example, the Deputy Mayor began cancelling their regularly scheduled meetings.

There is a post-pandemic downturn in finding staffing for public safety agencies throughout the U.S. This includes 911 centers. This is very likely one of the factors impacting DC’s current staffing issues. Despite that, it’s a valid question to ask if the Bowser administration had been more proactive when Cleo Subido first brought up these problems would so many people be waiting today for DC 911 to pick up the phone?

Correction: In a previous version of this article STATter911 quoted Heather McGaffin as saying, “I just don’t have enough staff.” Upon further review it was discovered that McGaffin actually used the word “people” instead of “staff.” It has been corrected.

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