New computer system trips up D.C. Fire & EMS, calls to help desk jump 800 percent

WASHINGTON — The roll out of a new software system added confusion to the already-embattled D.C. fire department, new figures suggest.

Last fall, new computer hardware and new software were installed in every fire apparatus and ambulance unit within D.C. Fire and EMS. But technical problems with the rollout and a lack of training have added to the problems facing the department, which has faced questions whether it has the equipment and staffing to respond to daily emergencies in the city.

“This created an unusually large amount of confusion and technical issues when this was installed in October and November,” says Kevin Donahue, the deputy city administrator.

The number of Fire & EMS calls to the help desk spiked 800 percent in the wake of the installation. Calls reached 400 in one month — up from about 50 per month before the computer upgrades.

Donahue says the surge indicates training and technical testing of the system weren’t sufficient before implementation.

He says it’s not clear whether confusion from the new system contributed to a recent mishandled response.

Earlier this month, responders to a choking toddler came from a fire station more than a mile from the home, even though a paramedic was available at a station just three blocks away.

The toddler died less than a week later.

While a review into the child’s death is still ongoing, one possible reason for the more-distant dispatch involves a typographical error using the new system.

Fire department staff are going through additional training on the system, which along with technical fixes, should bring down the number of calls to the help desk, Donahue says. Calls to the help desk from the fire department have dipped to about 200 per month.

But Donahue says one number that has remained consistent is the time it takes first responders to get to a scene when someone is in need.

Before and after the new system was installed, the average response time has stayed under five minutes.

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