‘911, please hold’: Metro used DC’s outdated emergency number for years

Metro was consistently calling an outdated number for 911 in D.C., and at peak times, emergency calls from the transit agency were put on hold.

The problem recently came to light after employees inside D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications questioned why emergency calls from Metro were put on hold, sometimes for minutes at a time.

“They call us a lot, about a dozen times a day,” Karima Holmes, director of the Office of Unified Communications, testified Thursday during a Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety oversight hearing.

Metro was using a number to connect with dispatchers that put its emergency calls in a low-priority queue, she said.

“We usually don’t have people on hold on 911, unless there’s a spike in calls. So, we started looking at the data to try to find out why was WMATA on hold for this long — it was a couple of minutes here, three or four minutes there; and we found out they were using an old number that we have as a lower priority,” Holmes told committee Chair Charles Allen, a Democrat who represents Ward 6.

Metro’s Dan Stessel confirmed it was using an outdated number, likely provided by D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications, since 2012, when Metro moved its command center to Maryland.

Because the call was coming from Maryland, the number wasn’t 911 but rather a 10-digit number that Metro programmed into its phone system to reach dispatchers if there was an emergency on one of its trains or buses in D.C.

“Metro and the 24-hour fire department liaison assigned to Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center began investigating isolated incidents in which calls to emergency services were encountering hold times before reaching a 911 operator,” Stessel said in a statement to WTOP.

Neither Holmes nor Stessel quantified how many emergency calls over eight years received a delayed response due to the low-priority number, but Stessel said as far as he knew, none were calls relaying a life-threatening emergency.

“Metro immediately reached out through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and requested each jurisdiction to provide their 911-equivalent telephone number, and these numbers have been programmed and tested across all phones in the Control Center for each jurisdiction we serve,” Stessel said in a statement.

Initially, Stessel told WTOP Metro also did not have the best number to reach emergency dispatchers in Montgomery County, Maryland. However, after speaking with the county, Stessel said he misspoke.

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