‘It just doesn’t make sense’: Safety advocate on former head of DC 911 system’s return to post

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has announced that Karima Holmes will be returning to the Office of Unified Communications as acting director, less than two years after an audit determined the city’s 911 system fell short of national standards.

Bowser made the announcement Thursday afternoon, saying Holmes would be returning to the post she held from 2015 until her resignation in Jan. 2021.

The mayor’s statement said that Holmes was a “seasoned public safety professional and a recognized emergency communications industry leader” for the past 20 years.

However, Bowser’s statement did not address concerns about Holmes being back in charge of an agency that faced criticism under her leadership.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen told WTOP that after Holmes’ resignation, Interim Director Cleo Subido improved the agency and that he was surprised Subido was not elevated to the director’s position.

“Make no mistake, the findings from the audit, the audit that we helped push for … (need) to be addressed very clearly before we would be able to move forward,” Allen said.

Safety advocate and former reporter Dave Statter had a much grimmer prediction for Holmes’ nomination, comparing her renomination to a return of Peter Newsham as chief of police, and calling for an in-depth examination of the years she spent in the office.

“It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t have a clue as to why the mayor is trying to bring back Karima Holmes,” Statter told WTOP. “What I do know is that the mayor and the deputy mayor did not support the interim director.”

He said that Holmes missed the people-centered issues — management questions, cultural concerns and training — and improved only on technological concerns, something that he says you can see in the language Bowser used in her announcement.

Moreover, Statter said the department wants to go back to what it looked like beforehand under Holmes, as opposed to continuing the progress he sees under Subido, the outgoing interim director.

“Cleo Subido came in during a pandemic,” Statter told WTOP. “As the interim director, having no support from Mayor Bowser and Deputy Mayor (Christopher) Geldart and somehow made enormous changes trying to revamp this organization. She moved the ball forward.”

He fears that the progress made during her time in the office may be undone, especially if Holmes takes advantage of reported departmental staffing concerns.

Statter is not the only one expressing concern over Holmes’ return. At-Large council member Robert White said her reappointment was “unacceptable and dangerous.”

He said that under Holmes’ leadership, the OUC’s 911 operations did not meet standards nor use new technologies, which proved deadly when a woman died of cardiac arrest in 2020 because crews were sent to the wrong address.

“People in dire situations can’t wait for a response. We are paying attention and will critically review this appointment,” White said in a statement.

In January, Subido said the call center was navigating a number of issues, including not only dwindling staff, but also difficulty finding qualified candidates.

In 2019, WTOP interviewed Statter and Holmes after claims of dispatches to wrong and nonexistent addresses. During that interview, Holmes said the claims were incorrect, that there was no systemic issue in the agency and that D.C. responders in the Office of Unified Communications were smoothly dispatching crews.

“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,” she told WTOP.

However, Statter, in several radio communications posted to his website, outlined the confusion of firefighters and first responders, saying they didn’t know where they were going or “understand the geography” of the District.

At the time, Holmes brushed aside these comments, telling WTOP that “people are frantic, they don’t always know exactly where they are.” Months after that interview, and Holmes’ resignation, D.C. started its search for a new director and launched an audit with consulting firm Federal Engineering of Fairfax, Virginia.

In a letter to Subido, the audit’s leader Kathy Patterson said that the audit would encompass the 2019-2020 time period. It was slated to evaluate OUC’s effectiveness against national standards, review 911 call records, evaluate OUC’s culture and training, and review the agency’s internal investigations and technological capabilities.

The completed, 114-page audit found that D.C.’s 911 system was inconsistent in its handling of calls, created a “bullying” culture among call center staff and did not meet national standards, among other problems. All of these issues, according to Subido, were areas of improvement for the agency.

“Our agency slogan is ‘Measure and Improve,’” Subido said in October. “Every policy, procedure, process and program will be designed, developed and deployed with these tenets in mind.”

According to Bowser’s release, Subido will remain with the D.C. government as the executive liaison of the city’s Fire and Emergency Management Services to OUC.

WTOP has reached out to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein, Scott Gelman and Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

Ivy Lyons

Ivy Lyons is a digital journalist for WTOP.com. Since 2018, they have worked on Capitol Hill, at NBC News in Washington, and with WJLA in Washington.

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