DC auditor to investigate 911 over delays, wrong-address dispatches

The District of Columbia’s Office of Unified Communications will be investigated by the Office of the DC Auditor after “recent events call into question the effectiveness of OUC’s 911 Operations Division.”

In a request for proposals issued Thursday, the District’s auditor’s office, headed by former Council member Kathy Patterson, cited recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and a D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission, as well as recent media reports, as the reason for the audit.

“The National Transportation Safety Board found that OUC’s call processing ‘delayed the emergency response’ to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority L’Enfant Plaza Station electrical arcing and smoke accident on January 12, 2015,” according to the background section of the RFP.

The NTSB recommended that the Office of Unified Communications audit its “average length of time that call takers use to process an emergency call and dispatch emergency service, and compare those results ” with the results of other similar agencies.

“To date, no such audit has occurred.”

Patterson’s office said after a fatal house fire at 708 Kennedy St. Northwest in 2019, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B voted to request an audit of the Office of Unified Communications.

“Recent media coverage also calls into doubt OUC’s ability to dispatch MPD and FEMS units to the correct location in a timely manner,” said the auditor’s office.

In September, on his Statter911 website, safety advocate Dave Statter, a former reporter, observed D.C. Fire and EMS crews were dispatched to wrong, or in some cases nonexistent, addresses more than three dozen times since December 2019.

Statter told WTOP, “I presented my findings to Kathy Patterson and her staff on Aug. 11.”

In response to Statter’s allegations in early September, Karima Holmes, head of the emergency call center, told WTOP, “there is not a systematic problem with DC 911.”

“There are times when we do make a mistake,” Holmes said Sept. 3. “There are times when the caller provides us a wrong address, and there are times when we give an address correctly and the responders interpret that address incorrectly.”

In the RFP document, the auditor’s office said it would assess the Office of Unified Communications operations against national standards for call processing time, prioritization and dispatch time.

In addition, the audit would look into the percentage of calls in which incorrect addresses were initially dispatched, as well as the call-taker training for the District’s geography.

Statter has been outspoken about what he describes as “lack of transparency” within the Office of Unified Communications, and that first responders are hampered when they have to determine a proper address.

“When you lose minutes in a situation where seconds count, you have a big problem, and people suffer,” he said.

In a statement to WTOP, Holmes said: “The Office of Unified Communications remains firmly committed to serving District residents and fulfilling its critical role in coordinating the most appropriate responses to all the city’s 911 calls. Furthermore, we are confident in our performance and welcome an audit.”

Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, the chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which oversees OUC, told WTOP: “The auditor’s mission is to support the council, and an independent and objective audit complements our ongoing oversight.”

According to Allen: “My expectation however is that we (the District) have internal protocols in place to prevent serious, repeated or systemic mistakes, and if one is made, we have a robust quality assurance process to catch it, review it and take corrective action so that it doesn’t happen again.”

“Having the full picture of an incident — and an agency’s overall operations — is critical,” Allen said.

The contract to perform the audit is expected to be awarded in November, with the final report provided by May 2021.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a full quote from D.C. Council member Charles Allen to provide clarity. 

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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