D.C. Police Chief: Miscommunication delayed aid to firefighters during attack

WASHINGTON — Interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham says miscommunication led to a delayed police response, as a District firefighter and paramedic struggled with a woman who attacked them with a knife.

“The fire department clearly needed some assistance, and that information wasn’t clearly communicated to the (police) officer in the field,” said Newsham, in a WTOP interview.

NBC Washington first reported the incident, which took place early Thursday morning, when D.C. Fire and EMS responded to a call for a heart attack, from a woman in Northeast D.C.

Eventually, the woman threatened to harm firefighters and herself, but the first responders waited 20 minutes for police to help.

NBC4 said the woman had a history of making calls to 911, but in each case refused medical treatment.

“We had someone who was calling for service, and they called 13 times in a 13-hour period,” said Newsham.

Newsham said supervisors are empowered to not respond to a 911 call, “if there are repeated calls where we go, and it appears that they don’t actually need service.”

The former assistant chief, who worked under former Chief Cathy Lanier, said supervisors need to make sure officers are available for legitimate emergencies.

NBC4 played tape of a firefighter asking dispatch to send an officer to the scene, because during an earlier false alarm, the woman had a knife.

“We’d like to have them there,” the firefighter said, calmly.

After a few more calls, the firefighter’s request for police assistance increased in intensity.

“We need them here, now,” the firefighter said.

On the sixth call, the dispatcher told the firefighter, police weren’t coming : “Per supervisor, they said officials advise they’re not coming back to that location,” said the dispatcher.

The firefighter sounded frustrated.

“OK, well, tell the supervisor she has a knife, she’s threatened to kill us, and herself. 10-33,” said the firefighter, using the code that means a firefighter’s life is in danger, and needs police assistance.

Newsham said the gravity of the situation wasn’t immediately relayed to officers in the field.

“I believe that what you heard on Channel 4 was from the fire department, and as you know, police and fire operate off of different radios zones, so that information wasn’t being relayed directly to the police,” said Newsham.

Once police responded, they were on the scene within two minutes, and arrested the woman for assaulting the firefighting personnel, Newsham said.

Newsham said an internal investigation is underway.

“We’re going to see where the communication breakdown occurred,” he said.

Newsham said he “really wanted to be clear” that D.C. police make the safety of D.C. Fire and EMS employees a top priority.

“We consider them to be brothers and sisters in public safety and we stand side-by-side from day to day on every one of these scenes that we go to,” said Newsham.

“Everybody in this agency, from me to the last recruit that entered the academy, knows when they call for assistance, we’re going to come and we’re going to be there to help them,” Newsham said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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