Facing intense scrutiny, head of DC’s 911 call center decides to leave

Inside the D.C. Office of Unified Communications, which installed the RapidSOS system in recent months. (WTOP/Kristi King)

The leader of D.C.’s 911 emergency call center for nearly five years has decided to step down as she faces an audit and intense scrutiny over how her agency operates.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said Office of Unified Communications Director Karima Holmes will be moving on from her post.

Holmes plans to leave her job after the 2021 presidential inauguration.

“Quite frankly, D.C. 911 is broken,” said safety advocate Dave Statter.

Statter, a former local reporter, has posted radio transmissions on his Statter911 website that document D.C. Fire and EMS crews being dispatched to wrong or, in some cases, nonexistent addresses.

He posted snippets of radio communications that include firefighters informing dispatchers that homes or businesses don’t exist when they arrive at an address to which they’ve been sent.

Statter said first responders are hampered when they have to do the detective work in determining a proper address.

“It has systemic problems,” Statter said. “Karima Holmes is just the latest director, and she hasn’t been able to correct it or change the direction.”

In a recent interview with WTOP, Holmes said that suggesting there is a spike in mistaken dispatches is incorrect and, in her words, “irresponsible.”

“There is not a systematic problem with D.C. 911,” Holmes said. “Sometimes, the information gets tangled and an error is made.”

Holmes said there can be many contributing factors in trying to gather information from a concerned citizen and dispatching first responders toward an emergency.

“There are times when we do make a mistake. 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,” Holmes said.

She said D.C.’s call-takers smoothly dispatch crews more than a million times every year.

“When someone calls 911, my call-takers attempt to verify the address multiple times during the call-handling process before it even goes to dispatch,” Holmes said.

But there have been a number of troubling stories around failed emergency responses, including one that detailed how it took an ambulance more than 20 minutes to arrive at a Northeast home after paramedics were directed to the wrong quadrant of D.C. In that incident, a woman suffered a fatal heart attack.

“It’s probably convenient that the OUC director is leaving now,” said Statter, who noted that the 911 operations center is currently being audited by the Office of the D.C. Auditor.

“If it uncovers what I think it will uncover, it would be bad news for any director,” Statter said.

The audit is expected to be released in May.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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