The Office of the D.C. Auditor says efforts to fix longstanding problems in the Office of Unified Communications, which operates the 911 call center, have produced only “minimal progress.”
“There is no more important government service than responding to medical emergencies,” said D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson in a statement. “And we are failing to meet the needs of District residents. Period.”
Her comments come nearly a year after a scathing report found the 911 center struggled to dispatch emergency crews to the correct locations and was failing to meet national standards.
Last fall, the auditor’s office released a report containing a laundry list of recommendations for the agency, calling for better staff supervision and steps to reduce confusion during the call-taking process and to correct glitches in dispatching calls.
However, an interim report from the auditor’s office released Friday finds just one recommendation has been fully completed. The majority of the recommendations — 24 of 31 — saw only minimal progress, according to the report.
“It’s not a good news story,” Patterson told WTOP in an interview. To show only minimal progress on virtually every recommendation, she said, amounted to “a failing grade.”
The status report is an early look at a full follow-up expected later this year.
The auditor’s office contracted with the public safety communications consulting firm Federal Engineering on both the original report and the follow-up.
There have been two more instances of delays in dispatching crews during emergency calls over the summer involving the deaths of two young people.
In one instance, parents of a 2-day-old infant who had stopped breathing called 911, but emergency crews were dispatched to Savannah Street instead of Savannah Terrace, where the couple lived. In the other, officials acknowledged it took 13 minutes for paramedics to arrive after a call about a toddler being left in a car.
The auditor said the follow-up report will examine what took place during those calls, as well as how OUC handled any mistakes.
One of the major recommendations from the original report was to boost the involvement of supervisors walking the floor to assist call-takers and to add four additional supervisors — one for every shift. But eight months after the first report was issued, that still hasn’t happened.
“The mayor could have included funding for those positions; the council could have included funding for those positions — and that didn’t happen,” Patterson said.
Slightly more progress has been made on rolling out mapping technology to help call-takers pinpoint the location of people calling for help.
“There has been some training provided but, again, not where we need to be,” she said.
911 chief responds
Responding to the report live on WAMU’s “Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi,” acting OUC Director Karima Holmes said she agrees with the majority of the recommendations from last fall’s report, but said she had only been back in the role for a few months at the time the follow-up audit was conducted.
Holmes previously led the agency between 2016 and 2020, and left amid growing scrutiny about mistakes in the call center. She was re-hired by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser earlier this year.
Holmes said the agency has put together an updated roadmap for completing recommendations, and said she would share more details at a D.C. Council oversight hearing scheduled for later this month.
Holmes also pointed to a summary of the auditor’s most recent findings, which stated her appointment, as well as the hiring of a new chief of 911 operations, were “viewed as positive changes by the front-line staff.”
Holmes also said OUC, like many public safety agencies across the county, is struggling with workload, stress and attrition and, at one point, was down about 60 employees, which she called “unprecedented.”
Bowser has still not submitted Holmes’ nomination to the D.C. Council, in violation of D.C. Code, which requires nominations of agency directors to be made within 180 days of a vacancy. But she has publicly championed Holmes as a strong leader for the agency.
During a news conference this week, Bowser said examples of mistakes in calls handled by OUC — many of them highlighted on Twitter by safety advocate and former reporter Dave Statter — amounted to “cherry-picked” information.
Patterson, the auditor, responded, “When there is an outcome that is a bad outcome, that is a horrific experience for the family of the person who passed away or was severely injured. I think calling that ‘cherry-picking’ was a moment of insensitivity, and I’m sure the mayor regrets having said that.”
For her part, Holmes said the agency takes mistakes seriously and investigates them after the fact to learn what went wrong. She said there had only been seven instances of mistaken addresses stemming from OUC in the last three years, out of 10 million total calls handled by the office.
“We do save lives every day in that building,” she said on WAMU. “And I just want to make sure that that is not missed in all the noise.”
Patterson said she believed there were likely more mistaken addresses than seven, and that the goal of her office’s reports is to encourage polices and practices that reduce and reduce delayed responses to people in crisis.
“We’re never going to get entirely to zero. There will still be accidents; we’re all human, Patterson said. “But trying to get that number as close to zero as possible — that is the goal.”