“414 Oglethorpe Street Northeast,” the girl says clearly.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”
A swallowed cry comes from the girl before she says, “414 Oglethorpe Street Northeast Washington D.C.”
The teenager gave the correct address. That detail matters because it shows she didn’t mess up. She was witnessing something terrifying, and she did everything right. Even so, she would have to wait — and wait, and wait, and wait — for emergency workers to help her because they would first go to the wrong address: 414 Oglethorpe Street Northwest.
As conversations have intensified in recent weeks about the ways D.C.’s 911 call center has failed and continues to fail residents, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to make people wait for help. And each time my thoughts have gone there, they have ended up at the same place: that teenager’s phone call. I first heard it when Dave Statter, a retired WUSA reporter who tracks emergency dispatches, wrote about it on his site.
The call was made in June 2020, and it’s hard to hear it and accept that officials at that time didn’t feel compelled to do whatever was needed to make sure another person didn’t have to wait longer than necessary for help. I have summarized parts of the call for you so that you know what those officials heard.
More than six minutes into the call, the teenager asks, “Do you know how long it will take for them to arrive?” She is assured she should be seeing them “shortly.”
After more than seven minutes, the girl tells the operator that she thinks her mother is no longer breathing. The operator instructs her on how to do chest compressions. “1 … 2 … 3 … 4,” they count together.
After more than eight minutes, the operator tells her the paramedics are there. But they aren’t. The two continue counting.