Members of the D.C. Council grilled the head of the District’s 911 system Thursday about her agency’s staffing, ability to answer emergency calls on time and overall transparency – with one councilmember slamming the agency for a “troubling pattern” of not complying with a law requiring it to provide Council with answers.
During the Office of Unified Communications’ annual performance and oversight hearing Thursday, Councilmembers Brooke Pinto and Zachary Parker both questioned the agency’s response to the District Dogs flooding, in which 10 dogs drowned last August in flash flooding at a doggy daycare in Northeast.
At one point, OUC leaders were expected to release an after-action report into the incident, but on Thursday, OUC Director Heather McGaffin said the report would instead come from the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Still, Parker pressed McGaffin over why her agency has defied Council requests by not releasing what’s in its purview – its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) records related to the flooding response. Parker also questioned why she hasn’t released information about staffing levels on a day last year when a District resident died, reportedly after what his relatives have publicly slammed as a slow response from first responders. Parker noted the agency is required by law to comply with the Council’s requests for documents or information.
“What I’m struggling with, director, is there’s a pattern of asking for information and then we don’t get it,’” Parker told McGaffin, later warning: “Legally a District agency cannot respond with, ‘I’m not going to produce that information.’”
During the hearing, McGaffin said she would discuss the matter with her general counsel and get back to the committee. Parker asked for the CAD reports by close of business Thursday and staffing levels for the date of the D.C. resident’s death. McGaffin wouldn’t commit to that but said she’d get them responses in what she called a “timely manner.”
News4 asked D.C.’s homeland security agency when it will release the District Dogs after-action report but has not yet received a response.
OUC has long faced criticism over its performance, such as misrouted calls or long hold times, with many errors blamed on short-staffing. Forced by the Council to provide greater transparency on staffing levels and errors, last fall OUC released data showing it had been short-staffed a third or more of the time since last July.
McGaffin testified Thursday the agency has made gains in hiring call takers – with vacancies down from 57 to 14, but admitted the agency has struggled to make similar gains in hiring dispatchers.
As of today, she said, OUC has 29 open dispatcher positions, which according to an I-Team analysis accounts for about 25% of all dispatcher roles. They are the OUC employees who send police or firefighters to a call.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, OUC submitted written records showing a decline in how many calls get answered in 10 seconds or less each year. The records show OUC’s goal for last year was 90% of calls answered in 10 seconds or less, but the same records show OUC only met that goal 74% of the time. Without explanation, OUC noted in its report that its performance has “continually improved.”
On Thursday, OUC leaders told Council the national standard changed in recent years to 15 seconds. According to data on its website, OUC only met that standard 78% of the time in fiscal year 2023.
McGaffin testified Thursday her agency has seen more recent signs of improvement, telling Council that, last week, it met the 15-second standard six out of seven days.