Aspiring DC 911 director encouraged by reports of more ambulances sent to wrong address

Lawmakers are sharing that last year, D.C. 911 call takers dispatched 34 ambulances to the wrong address — and so far this year, they’ve sent 36 to the wrong place. As part of her confirmation hearing, the acting director of the dispatch center explained why.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pick to run the Office of Unified Communications, current acting director Heather McGaffin, testified that the increased number of ambulances sent to the wrong address is due to dispatchers feeling more comfortable in reporting their mistakes.

“When morale is better, and people know that … maybe they’re not going to get fired for the first time that they chose the wrong quadrant of the city, that we were really going to help them and are really going to pour into them so that they can do better the next time, I think is a heck of a lot easier for somebody to say, ‘I made a mistake. I need help,'” McGaffin said.

During her testimony to Public Safety and Justice Committee Chair Brooke Pinto, she responded to Pinto’s many questions about the troubled 911 call center, which has a history of sending ambulances to the wrong addresses, sometimes with deadly consequences.

“There were eight blown addresses in fiscal year 2020, 31 in FY 2021, 34 In FY 2022, and 36 in FY 23 to date. We still have a long way to go,” Pinto said.

McGaffin assured her that there are two people behind the call taker who are checking the dispatched address and committed to sharing with the public safety committee each time her office sends help to the wrong place.

“One of the other things that I’m going to commit to is that when there are situations that the need arises that there are industry partners who will deal with a peer review of calls,” McGaffin said, of her desire to seek an independent agency to review dispatchers’ work.

Ahead of her testimony, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson offered an update to her office’s audit of the OUC. She encouraged Pinto to ask specific questions of McGaffin having to do with her office’s handling of specific instances, including an October 2022 emergency call classified by the dispatcher as a “lift assist” — a caller reported her “elderly roommate” was unresponsive but couldn’t be moved.

Patterson said the man died of cardiac arrest. The ambulance didn’t arrive for 20 minutes.

“Ask both nominees if they have listened to this call, and if they have, ask why is an incomplete and misleading report still on a website six months later,” Patterson said of McGaffin and Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Lindsey Appiah’s upcoming confirmation hearings.

McGaffin later said that all dispatch entries — including errors — remain in the system for transparency.

Patterson also questioned why auditors found the OUC team hesitant to learn and implement technology that would help them map the location of a 911 call.

“They had not seen a call center with as much hesitation as they found here, to actually use what showed up on the computer screen … there wasn’t causation provided. We can’t, you know, intuit that the people just don’t want change or what it might be … but it was a big surprise,” Patterson said.

McGaffin’s response: The team’s previous experience with that technology was when it was brand new and didn’t work as well. Also, when the auditors arrived, they had not yet retrained on the LDT mapping system.

“There had not been a robust amount of training done prior when the audit team had first come. It has since come later, actually most recently in June of 2022, when we had an operations chief and a new training chief,” McGaffin said.

Patterson did not offer an opinion on McGaffin as a candidate for the director position. McGaffin must live within the city before she can formally accept the role, per D.C. code. She told Pinto when her kids finish up their school year, she plans to move her family into the District.

A request for comment from the SEIU National Association of Government Employees union, which represents dispatchers, did not respond to WTOP’s request for comment on Patterson’s findings.

The D.C. council will vote on McGaffin’s appointment before she officially takes the director role, as is Bowser’s wish.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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