Responding to a spate of reported 911 dispatching issues, a Washington, D.C., auditor might conduct a long-awaited probe of the Office of Unified Communications next year. Alleged OUC incidents — including sending first responders to the wrong address or multiple responders to the same place — could show a systemic problem, said a neighborhood commissioner and firefighter union president in interviews last week.
Stakeholders say such delays, duplications and other misunderstandings could have deadly consequences in the future if repeated. They point to past mistakes that may have contributed to critical injuries or even death. The 911 agency raised eyebrows at what it called “unsubstantiated claims about the OUC’s performance.” For more details, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request Friday.
The Office of D.C. Auditor will consider adding an OUC audit to a FY 2021 work plan that the auditing office is developing and usually sends the D.C. Council Oct. 1, said the auditor’s spokesperson. The representative noted the review was requested by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B01 Commissioner Evan Yeats in a May 27 ANC resolution seeking audits of 911 and 311. “We read you,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson tweeted July 20 to Yeats and Dave Statter, a former reporter and first responder who often blogs and tweets about OUC issues.
More than four years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended an independent outside audit of OUC, as part of NTSB’s investigation into the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza Metro subway fire, which included a late 911 dispatch. The recommendations to OUC (see R-16-004, R-16-005 and R-16-006) remain open. NTSB told the office Aug. 10, 2018, it would need to sponsor an outside audit and compare results with national standards. NTSB will determine if the possible D.C. auditor probe satisfies when OUC notifies the federal agency, an NTSB spokesperson emailed Wednesday. “We have not received any correspondence detailing such an audit.”
“We appreciate constructive feedback and remain firmly committed to serving District residents and fulfilling our critical role in coordinating the most appropriate responses to all” the city’s 911 calls, OUC said. The office annually gets 3.5 million emergency and nonemergency calls, sends responders to about 1 million emergencies and handles 12 million push-to-talk radio transmissions, said OUC: Its FY 2019 error rate was 0.004%. “We strive to meet the expectation that we will handle every single one of those interactions without mistake,” but “in the unfortunate case when an error is made we review the circumstances and work quickly to ensure that the same mistake does not happen again.”
Yeats said the audit “seems positive,” and “any progress is good progress,” though concerns about OUC date back to long before the ANC raised concerns. Yeats hasn’t received any more details from the D.C. auditor besides an email confirmation with similar information as the tweet, the commissioner told us. Don’t fear an audit, “whether you think there’s a systemic problem or not,” he advised.
Firefighters Union Local 36 President Dabney Hudson sees “a myriad of issues,” he told us. “Quite frequently, our units get dispatched late … or to the wrong quadrant of the city,” said Hudson, who has testified on problems before the D.C. Council. “We’ve had some incidents recently where we’ve had members call in that need immediate police assistance, and we’ve had significant issues in getting those calls dispatched. It’s not anything new — this is something that we’ve been struggling with for years and years.”
In recent months, we have listened to such dispatch errors, as captured by Statter. From the firefighter and EMS radio traffic that’s public and that often records in real time, the problems have continued unabated. Most police walkie-talkie communications aren’t publicly available, so they can’t be compared.
D.C. is “well outside the national standards,” for answering calls and dispatching, Hudson said. “Typically, when we put the heat on them for that, they try to turn them around and try to dispatch them faster, but then they just increase severity of a lot of calls, and they over-dispatch or under-dispatch.”
Multiple ANCs passed resolutions last fall on the District’s response to a deadly house fire on Kennedy Street NW, in which the 911 call center reportedly took nearly four minutes to dispatch firefighters after a police officer radioed 911. Yeats said he informally voiced concerns about various incidents with OUC, D.C. Council Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Charles Allen and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue. While generally responsive, they tend to focus on specific incidents rather than look for systemic issues, Yeats said. Allen and Donahue didn’t comment Friday.
“They’re not all CPR calls where they go to the wrong address, but daily they’re sending an enormous number of duplicate dispatches,” said Statter, who listens to responder radio traffic via OpenMHz.com. “It’s such a waste of resources that could be going to real emergencies.” Statter said he has raised concerns when testifying multiple times before the D.C. Council, and regularly tags OUC, Allen and others in D.C. government in tweets.
“Sharing snippets of radio traffic and other incomplete and piecemeal records, which may only include interactions between the dispatchers and field providers, simply do not completely nor accurately convey the most critical variables, such as what information was provided by the 911 caller and the fluid nature of complex and evolving emergencies,” said OUC.
OUC appears understaffed, undertrained and overworked, said Hudson, who doubts technical issues are to blame for reported mistakes. At D.C. Council oversight hearings over the past decade, the firefighter union president heard 911 workers testify about longer shifts, fewer breaks and reductions in staff, he said. While the Council tends to dig into these issues at oversight hearings, OUC Director Karima Holmes usually says the office is performing adequately, Hudson said.
The problems don’t seem to be technical, said Statter. “Circumstantial evidence” leads him to believe “someone’s not listening to the radio.” While 911 struggles nationwide with resources and job retention, “they seem to be on steroids” in the District in terms of mistakes, he said.
The 911 office is inconsistently transparent, said Yeats. In one case, OUC cited confidentiality concerns as it turned down Yeats’ FOIA request for information about the timeline and other information about a specific dispatch, he said. OUC provided such information in the Kennedy Street case, he said. The office rarely provides information about 911 calls, even through FOIA, said Statter.
OUC said it provides 10,000 hours of training to operations staff yearly, and 911 professionals across the nation also train there. “Our training classes are consistently at capacity.” The office defended its transparency: “It is with the utmost respect for those we serve that we make appropriate disclosures of incident information in accordance with applicable laws and regulations that seek to protect 911 callers’ personal privacy and that do no harm to official public safety investigations.” Physically, the center is impressive: an airy, large, newer building with much of the latest technology, as we observed on a 2019 tour with FCBA (see 1902280029).
COVID-19 might now be a bigger priority for D.C. government, with the virus forcing the D.C. Council to compress and virtualize a recent OUC hearing, Hudson said. Coronavirus is “absolutely not” an excuse to put off a probe, and the national debate over policing amplifies its need, said Yeats. “Good dispatching is more critical than ever.”