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Four out of ten jobs answering 911 calls and dispatching fire, EMS and police are unfilled at DC’s 911 center. This and other key information about some of the troubled agency’s problems can be found in a report from new acting director Heather McGaffin. That document is an annual questionnaire the Office of Unified Communication’s director answers as part of the DC Council’s oversight process. This year’s report further confirms a number of DC 911 stories first uncovered by STATter911.
Reports locally and across the country indicate public safety agencies are having a tough time hiring workers post pandemic. 911 centers aren’t immune. Forty percent of the call-taker and dispatcher jobs being vacant at DC 911 would seem to be an indication of this trend. But this isn’t new at OUC. There was a dire warning 20 months ago.
In July of 2021 STATter911 first reported on DC 911’s critical staffing issues. The information came in the form of a blunt email to 911 workers by then interim director Cleo Subido. Subido’s email talked about serious challenges meeting minimum staffing levels for call-takers and dispatchers. She claimed that only half of the people employed at DC 911 were available to work on any given day. Subido instituted mandatory overtime in an attempt to keep the 911 center fully staffed on each shift.
Subido received little support from Mayor Muriel Bowser or then Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart after the staffing issues became public. Listen to the response (below) from Bowser when asked about Subido’s email:
Twenty months after Subido’s email, McGaffin is reporting only 60 percent of the call-taker and dispatcher jobs at DC 911 are filled. McGaffin wrote to Council member Brooke Pinto that 37 of 109 911 call-taker positions are vacant. On the dispatching side of 911, there are currently 92 people employed with a staggering 77 vacancies. Based on today’s public safety hiring environment OUC is likely to have a significant challenge correcting this serious staffing problem.
A year ago, Subido reported a smaller authorized staffing level with 15% of the positions vacant.
Recent 911 mistakes
McGaffin’s report provides evidence 911 call-takers were responsible for sending DC Fire & EMS to the wrong location during two cardiac arrests (Main Dr NW & 1st St NW on the chart below), a shooting (New Jersey Ave SE) and a stove fire (6th Street SW) since January 25. According to McGaffin, a third cardiac arrest involving a newborn (Mass Ave NW) went to the wrong location because of bad address information supplied by a 911 caller. While the delayed responses were first reported by STATter911 within a day of each occurring this is the first public acknowledgement of these incidents by OUC.
New stats bring more questions about old stats
The information about the recent blown addresses is found in a chart McGaffin shared with Pinto. That chart shows fire, EMS and police were sent to the wrong location 34 times in FY2022 and 36 times so far in FY 2023. Of those 70 incidents, 49 occurred because of a mistake by a call-taker or dispatcher. This information was first reported on Twitter Monday by Washington City Paper Loose Lips reporter Alex Koma.
This is a 50 percent increase in wrong addresses from last year’s report by then interim director Subido. Subido reported 46 incidents with 27 due to 911 staff errors. While that’s significant, there’s a much more dramatic increase when compared to statistics provided by former director Karima Holmes. In her annual reports from FY2015 to 2019 Holmes never identified more than five blown addresses per year.
In August of 2020, STATter911 reported DC 911 sent fire and EMS to more wrong addresses so far that year than the last five years combined. From January to August, radio traffic showed at least 30 times where crews were dispatched to an erroneous address. At the time, STATter911 asked OUC if this was due to a sudden increase in mistakes or if this data had been previously under reported. The only response from Holmes following that report came during the September 3, 2020, Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM. Holmes told Nnamdi, “Dave Statter is not my oversight.”
With the latest stats this question remains: Is an approximate 12-fold increase in bad address information in three years an indication of OUC competency or previous under reporting?