Bowser makes one last pitch for embattled OUC nominee

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gathered the top chiefs from the city’s public safety agencies to talk about plans to make holiday shoppers feel safer in commercial districts.

Included in that mix was her nominee to run the Office of Unified Communications, which handles the city’s 911 calls. But with her long-delayed confirmation vote scheduled for Tuesday, it became clear this was really about rallying support for Karima Holmes ahead of what looks like a doomed outcome.

OUC has been plagued by failures for years and has faced a tough round of performance review hearings in recent months.

Holmes, who ran the agency from 2015 until January 2021, was nominated by Bowser to return to the role earlier this year. But for months, her nomination languished within a D.C. Council committee. On Tuesday, and without a formal confirmation hearing, the full council will take up Holmes’ nomination.

This week, Charles Allen, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, warned that the nomination would likely fail.

“The public and many members of the Council have had concerns about the leadership and operations of the Office of Unified Communications for some time, most recently stemming from multiple incidents where errors led to delays in emergency services arriving on scene and, tragically, loss of life,” Allen said.

“There is no requirement that the Council hold a public hearing on a nomination, and the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety recently held an oversight roundtable with Acting Director Holmes to examine these incidents, and OUC’s performance, generally. This is also Acting Director Holmes’ second stint with OUC, and Councilmembers and the public are familiar with her leadership. It is clear the Council is focused on agency operations improving and supports a different direction for OUC’s leadership.”

Earlier this year, paramedics were sent to the wrong address by dispatchers after an infant’s heart stopped beating. The child died. In another incident, a man having a heart attack had to wait 11 minutes, and through three calls placed to 911, before an ambulance was sent.

But Holmes defended the agency, and herself.

“I’m here to help,” said Holmes. “I live here. I came here from another state and I fell in love with D.C. I know what I’m doing. I have the credentials. I am actually asked across this country to help other 911 directors run their centers, and it’s absolutely embarrassing that in my own hometown that is not seen correctly.”

Bowser and Holmes blame that negative perception on the media and public safety advocates, but it’s likely that a majority of the D.C. Council shares that perception.

“The mayor should recognize that the appointment did not have support when it came to the council,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who called the mayor’s last ditch effort “out of touch with the realities.”

“Karima Holmes has not been held in high regard by the council since her first stint at the Office of Unified Communications. The reaction when the mayor sent her name down was not positive,” added Mendelson. “I’m a little surprised that the mayor has decided to dig on this since we’ve known this was going to happen for months now.”

If the council didn’t hold an up or down vote before Dec. 20, Holmes would have been considered “approved” by the council, hence the vote set for Tuesday. There isn’t much doubt about what the outcome will be though, and Mendelson said the mayor should nominate someone else to oversee an agency that handles over 3,000,000 emergency calls every year.

Holmes maintains she’s the right one for the job.

“We get it right, the majority of the time,” said Holmes. “Our complaint rate, our error rate is under .001%, literally. We try to do our best. We’re not perfect.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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