‘This is literally life or death’: DC council member expresses frustration with 911 call center problems

Frustrated D.C. residents continue voicing concerns and fears over the District’s 911 call center, saying their calls are still being dropped or never answered. One D.C. council member says she wants answers.

Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau said she’s seen an uptick in complaints from her constituents. For example, over a 10-day period in May, Nadeau said she heard about more disturbing incidents with the call center than she typically does in a year.

“I am deeply concerned and frustrated with the 911 call center,” Nadeau told WTOP. “Right now, when you call 911 in an emergency, there is no guarantee that someone is going to answer or call you back.”

On Tuesday, Nadeau sent a letter to the City Administrator and Office of Unified Communications (OUC), requesting daily staffing statistics, a list of agency mistakes, changes to correct systemic failures and a private briefing.

“In Ward 1, we’ve had people who called, and no one answered. We’ve had people who were placed on hold for 20 minutes before they just gave up,” she said. “One constituent called 911 to report multiple gunshots in her neighborhood and got the automated ‘Please do not hang up’ message and was put on hold and then the call was dropped. That caller tried four more times to get help but could not get through.”

D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications handles 911 calls in the District. Earlier this year, Director Heather McGaffin defended the agency before a D.C. Council committee. She said the city was working to improve hiring and make sure there is enough personnel on hand to answer calls.

“Last year, of the nearly 1.8 million 911 calls received, 77.86% were answered in 15 seconds or less,” McGaffin said in February, arguing that’s the new industry standard these days. “In fact, the average number one answer time was 12.03 seconds.”

In her letter, Nadeau referenced a history of critical errors, including dispatching emergency medical services to the wrong address or misdirecting calls. She also accused Mayor Muriel Bowser of downplaying the agency’s deficiencies.

“Why isn’t the mayor making this her number one priority? This is literally life or death in the District of Columbia every day,” Nadeau said. “People living here need to know if they have an emergency, someone is going to pick up the phone. It’s very basic.”

Nadeau said she looks forward to a response and solutions.

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