Looking for a quality used fire truck? Selling one? Visit our sponsor Command Fire Apparatus
NOTE: Today (Thursday), DC Office of Unified Communications Director Heather McGaffin gave sworn testimony to the DC Council she can’t release the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) report from the District Dogs flood or discuss what’s in it because the call is “under investigation.” McGaffin refused to even say what agency is conducting the investigation. This article includes one of at least three CAD reports related to the flooding. Specifically, it’s the call that generated the first non-emergency response to the business where 10 dogs died.
An internal document DC officials refuse to release confirms 911 call-takers misclassified an August structural collapse and flood that trapped people and dogs. A printout from DC 911’s dispatch computer obtained by STATter911 shows the August 14 call was coded as a non-emergency response. This report also shows that call-takers failed to document the 911 calls in a way that would alert dispatchers to the ongoing life-threatening emergency faced by both people and beloved pets inside District Dogs.
Because of this, there was a 15-minute delay in notifying DC Fire & EMS — already in the same block rescuing stranded motorists — that District Dogs was underwater and lives were in danger. Ten dogs drowned inside the kennel after an estimated six feet of water crushed windows and rushed through the business.
DC officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser and Office of Unified Communications (OUC) Director Heather McGaffin, adamantly refuse to say mistakes were made by DC 911 workers. OUC’s McGaffin, in a briefing a week after the flooding, blamed the long delay on a dispatcher misspeaking, staffing shortages, and OUC not having a dispatch code specifically for a flood with people trapped. Known as a CAD report — standing for computer-aided dispatch — the document provides evidence that none of those issues were the primary reasons why DC 911 mishandled this emergency.
Instead, the CAD report, combined with call transcripts McGaffin released to the news media the day of the briefing, show that call-takers didn’t respond appropriately to the dire emergency described by the first two 911 callers. Both call-takers classified the incident as non-emergency and failed to make notes in the computer system that people and dogs were in danger. One of the two initial call-takers also entered the wrong address for District Dogs.
When the call reached a fire and EMS dispatcher, more than three minutes after the first call was received, there was no information on the computer screen indicating people or dogs were threatened by the rising water. Because of that, the call was initially dispatched to assist the public with a water leak. This wasn’t corrected for an additional 11 minutes and only after another caller reached DC 911. At the August 21 briefing, DC Fire & EMS Chief John Donnelly said he wished he had those 15 minutes back.
Reporters have asked numerous times for the CAD report to be released. So far, the document has been withheld by DC officials.
What the CAD report doesn’t show are any in-person discussions about the call that may have occurred in the 911 center.
The first 911 call came in at 5:06:44 p.m. It was answered by a call-taker identified by the computer terminal designation C-103. The transcripts McGaffin released show the call was from a person identifying themselves as a manager of the dog daycare center. The manager called from their home in Maryland where they were watching the flooding through security cameras. The caller said immediately, “It’s flooding horribly. The walls gave out.” That caller soon added, “The whole building is going under water right now. Water was coming out through the walls and we saw the walls break down through the cameras and what’s more they have big glass windows facing the street. The cameras are not working anymore but we know people are in danger.”
The CAD report indicates the call-taker didn’t begin entering the report into the computer — known as creating an event — for as long as three minutes. Further indication of the late entry is this call was assigned a higher incident number than the second 911 call received a minute later. Call-takers are generally trained to quickly enter an event into the computer and type contemporaneous notes from their conversation with the caller.
When the event was created, the call-taker coded it as ASSTPUB – ASSIST PUBLIC. That coding is often used as a catch-all to handle a variety of non-emergency services provided by the DC Fire & EMS Department. Sources within DC Fire & EMS, and former OUC employees, say the more appropriate coding would have been either RESWATER WATER-RESCUE or RESCOLL RESCUE-COLLAPSE. Both designations indicate a life-safety issue and an actual emergency. The ASSTPUB – ASSIST PUBLIC code does neither.
The document STATter911 received does not show any notes or remarks from the initial call-taker. There appears to be nothing that indicates the caller’s description of a life-threatening situation. It’s unclear if remarks from the call-taker can be found on a different document.
The computer entry was then transferred to the dispatcher with no indication this was a serious emergency. This computer entry also had the wrong address. Despite the transcripts showing this caller verifying two times the address was 680 Rhode Island Avenue NE, the call-taker entered 280 Rhode Island Avenue NE.
The bad address apparently didn’t cause a delay. That’s because by the time C-103 entered the call in the computer the second 911 call about the flooding at District Dogs had already been entered. It was this call that was used to determine the initial dispatch. The call came into OUC at 5:07:43. It was handled by the person working the terminal listed as C-118.
This second caller was an assistant manager of District Dogs who was also watching the flooding on security cameras from their home in Maryland. They said, “…the whole place is flooding, and there (are) people in there, animals in there and it’s like the whole place is completely flooded.” The assistant manager added, “It looks like everything is collapsed now. Like the water flooded everything.”
Like the first call-taker, this one also coded the call as ASSTPUB – ASSIST PUBLIC. The document shows this call-taker typed remarks. But those entries didn’t mention the most important information — people and dogs were trapped inside by the rising water and that part of the building collapsed.
The first three remarks that came from C-118 were “flooding inside location”, “engine” and “no flames or smoke”. There were two more remarks saying, “Water coming from everywhere” and “Caller watching from a camera”. The last two weren’t entered until after the initial dispatch of DC Fire & EMS Department Tower 3. The additional notes still failed to show there was a life-safety issue.
The second call-taker’s call was dispatched at 17:10:12. That’s two minutes and 29 seconds from the time of the second 911 call. If measuring from the initial 911 call it would be three minutes and 28 seconds before a DC Fire & EMS unit was sent. Both are generally considered lengthy call processing times for a life-threatening emergency.
The dispatcher initially handling this call is identified in the CAD report as using terminal D-124. They appeared to be working the Channel 1 position. That position’s job is to quickly assess the information entered by the call-taker and the units assigned by the computer. The Channel 1 dispatcher then dispatches it as is or possibly upgrades or downgrades the call. The CAD report shows this dispatcher had no indication the call was anything more than a flooding condition. Based on what was on the computer in front of him, our sources indicate the dispatcher had no reason to upgrade the call to either a water rescue or collapse rescue. Doing so would have sent many more units, all responding with lights and sirens.
Coded as an ASSTPUB – ASSIST PUBLIC, it was considered a non-emergency call. The incident was assigned to Tower 3. At approximately 17:10:26 the Channel 1 dispatcher said over the radio, “Tower 3 proceed for a public assist at six-eighty Rhode Island Avenue Northeast. Tower 3 proceed for a public assist at the District Dogs at six-eighty Rhode Island Avenue Northeast for a water leak. Operate on tac channel zero-two. Seventeen-ten.”
Using the word “proceed” indicates to fire and EMS they are to head to the location at normal speed without lights and sirens.
At the August 21 press briefing, Heather McGaffin told reporters numerous times that this dispatcher misspoke when he said, “water leak.” The dispatcher didn’t really misspeak. He characterized the call-taker’s note describing “flooding inside location” as a water leak. As numerous DC public safety sources point out, this had no impact on how the call was handled. Neither designation is considered a life-safety issue by itself. Whether the dispatcher said “flooding” or “water leak”, the call would still have been a non-emergency response to assist the public. The sources, all not authorized to speak on DC 911 issues, remain puzzled by McGaffin making a big issue of this meaningless distinction while at the same time refusing to talk about the clear mistakes made by the call-takers.
The incident commander
Radio traffic from OpenMHz.com shows a different dispatcher, working Channel 2, also called the incident a “water leak”. They were initially operating off the same information in the computer. The primary job of the Channel 2 dispatcher is to communicate with those in charge of fire and rescue incidents handled by DC Fire & EMS. In this case, that dispatcher was conversing with the incident commander for the rescues that were underway of motorists stranded in the 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE. That operation began at 4:54 p.m. when Engine 12 spotted the flooding and cars stranded under the rail overpass in the block. At Engine 12’s request, a water-rescue assignment was dispatched to that incident.
At 5:13 p.m., the Channel 2 dispatcher alerted the incident commander they recently dispatched Tower 3 for a “water leak” at 680 Rhode Island Avenue NE. Like the Channel 1 dispatcher, the woman working Channel 2 apparently had nothing on her computer screen to indicate there was a life-safety issue at District Dogs. This also left the incident commander in the dark. Without any hint of people being in danger, the incident commander canceled Tower 3. He said on the radio that access to those buildings “are all completely flooded.” He added, “You’re going to have to hold that call for now until we get these rescues resolved.”
For another eight minutes, the incident commander remained unaware that dogs were drowning, and people were trapped inside 680 Rhode Island Avenue NE. Even if he had time to read the computer terminal in his vehicle, the CAD report indicates the incident commander would have seen nothing saying this was an urgent situation. It wasn’t until shortly after a third 911 call came in at 5:18 p.m. that dispatchers apparently learned for the first time what the call-takers knew from the start — help was needed immediately inside District Dogs. As shown in the previously released transcripts, the third caller was inside the flooded building and in danger. That person said during the call, “We are trapped in water. We are trapped in water that is above our heads. There are six people trapped in the water and we have no way out and nothing (inaudible). We need the water rescue immediately.”
Shortly after 5:30 p.m., the first firefighters, arriving by boat, were finally at District Dogs.
The bad address
The first call-taker entering the wrong address didn’t delay the response to District Dogs but blown addresses remain a chronic problem at DC 911. Since 2020, STATter911 has documented seven times where call-takers inadvertently entered a wrong address in connection with incidents where someone died. There have also been scores of other cases during the same time period where a dispatcher’s error entering an address delayed the response of fire and EMS. Often, these mistakes are caught in the field by responding units seeing a conflict in the remarks on their computer terminals. Sometimes they don’t learn of the error until they arrive at the bad address and can’t find anyone needing help. The good news is this time it was caught at OUC and apparently well handled.
The CAD report for District Dogs shows that the Channel 1 dispatcher (D-124), seeing the 280 Rhode Island Avenue NE address, sent out a critical update trying to reconcile the two different addresses. Those remarks are noted on the computer by a red symbol with an exclamation point, along with the word “Critical” attached to the message. The dispatcher received a response from the terminal C-118 call-taker who reconfirmed the correct address was 680 and not 280 Rhode Island Avenue NE.
The Channel 1 dispatcher then merged the two incidents. The accounting of the conflicting information, along with combining the calls, prevented OUC from sending additional DC Fire & EMS units to check out 280 Rhode Island Avenue NE. The wasting of resources on duplicate calls is another chronic OUC issue.
The attempt to hide what really happened at DC 911 during the District Dogs flood is an insult to the families whose dogs died, the people trapped and in danger of drowning, and those who called 911. NBC4’s Mark Segraves talked with one of those callers who was distressed and second-guessing what they told the 911 call-taker. That angst occurred because at a press conference a few days after the flood, City Administrator Kevin Donahue implied the first two callers may not have clearly articulated the severity of the incident. The 911 call transcripts released the following week showed that Donahue was wrong. Like McGaffin a few days later, Donahue attempted to get the press and the public to believe the 911 call-takers didn’t cause the delay.
The administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser has a long and sordid history of trying to hide OUC’s mistakes. Possibly the worst of these attempts to coverup a tragic error was in June 2020 when Sheila Shepperd died. For five months, the Bowser administration refused to explain why DC Fire & EMS was dispatched to the wrong quadrant of the city as Shepperd’s 13-year-old daughter performed CPR on her mother. Then OUC Director Karima Holmes was asked about the case in a DC Council hearing and on a radio show. Holmes said she couldn’t recall that incident. All of that time, the Shepperd family didn’t know for sure if the mistake was made by the young teenager or by OUC. It wasn’t until the 911 call was released in November 2020 that Holmes finally admitted it was a tragic error by a call-taker.
As with the Shepperd case, OUC’s current director knew almost immediately how her agency responded to the District Dogs flood. The CAD printout obtained by STATter911, the 911 call recordings, and the radio traffic were all at Heather McGaffin’s fingertips. City Administrator Donahue even admitted that McGaffin knew what occurred the same evening the dogs died. It’s her job to know.
Sadly, for too long, OUC directors also believe it’s their job to hide that information from the public. And they do so with the blessing, if not the direct orders, of Muriel Bowser and those at the top of her administration.
Somehow, the Bowser administration believes it’s better to concoct excuses like McGaffin telling us a dispatcher misspoke or Mayor Bowser claiming the call-takers were hampered by not knowing the flooding history of the property. Somehow, they believe it’s the role of local government to illegitimately deny Freedom of Information Act requests and to hide documents, such as this CAD printout, that really belong to the public. Somehow, they believe it’s okay to further harm the people they’re sworn to protect rather than admit that, once again, DC 911 made a tragic mistake.
Mayor Bowser and her top officials have shown repeatedly they have more interest in keeping DC 911’s secrets buried than finally addressing and fixing them.