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When firefighters and medics were sent to the wrong Reston, Virginia Metro station last month for a man in cardiac arrest Fairfax County blamed Metro. Metro admitted it gave Fairfax County 911 the wrong address for the station, but that’s only part of the story. A recording of Metro’s call along with 911 center documents show Fairfax County provided both misleading and wrong information in its official statements. Those statements over multiple days also failed to disclose, until Tuesday, a key fact. While a Metro worker gave the wrong address she also provided the correct station name. Fairfax County’s actions appear to be an effort to hide the 911 center’s own delays that hindered fire and EMS getting to the stricken man. The man died.
The new information comes from a Freedom of Information Act request that Henry Bright (@HCBright10) shared with STATter911. Bright, who describes himself as a concerned Fairfax County citizen, also provided the original tip about this botched call. It resulted in a March 21 STATter911 story breaking the news of the delayed response a day earlier at the Reston Town Center Metro Station. The new information shows the 10 minutes lost before the call was corrected wasn’t just Metro’s fault.
The 911 center, officially known as the Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC), disagrees with STATter911’s assessment. DPSC says they’ve “been completely transparent and forthcoming with information.”
DPSC continues to claim this was strictly a Metro problem, pointing out that “WMATA is the authority for Metrorail.”
The call from Metro
In its initial March 21 statement, a Fairfax County government spokesperson relayed DPSC information that WMATA reported “a cardiac arrest at the Wiehle Metro Station.” That wasn’t true. The documentation Bright received shows no one from Metro said the call was at Wiehle, officially known as the Wiehle-Reston East Metro Station. The caller from Metro reported the name of the station clearly and correctly. The Metro employee said, “I’m calling because we need medics dispatched to the Reston Town Center Metro Station.” (Audio of that call is at the top of this post.)
It’s what happened next that greatly delayed fire and EMS getting to the man who had collapsed on the Reston Town Center platform. The caller from Metro gave the wrong street address. Metro admitted this in a March 22 statement saying, “The station address that the control center provided to Fairfax County FD was incorrect.” Metro and others say the source of the wrong station address was a Metro database.
The address that was given — 1901 Reston Metro Plaza — is associated with the Wiehle-Reston East Metro Station. It’s where DPSC sent fire and EMS. It was the beginning of a tragic delay.
During the call you hear the DPSC call-taker ask if the Reston Town Center Metro Station is on Bluemont Way. Bluemont Way is the address for the Reston Town Center Transit Center about a block from the Metro station. Both are about two miles from Wiehle-Reston East. Clearly there was a conflict in the address between what DPCS and Metro had in their databases. During that initial call, no one on either side of the conversation pursued it further. When the call was dispatched to Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department crews no mention was made of “Reston Town Center Metro Station” in radio traffic or dispatch notes that are viewed on mobile terminals.
In fact, Fairfax County initially wanted us to believe that no one at DPSC was even aware there was an address conflict until 9:15 a.m., almost eight minutes after Metro’s call. That official information also turned out to be incorrect..
In its initial response Tuesday, DPSC still wouldn’t acknowledge its statement mischaracterized what Metro reported. It was only after STATter911 made clear it had the recording of the call that a county spokesperson sent a modified version of the March 21 statement. The updated statement reads in part, “On March 20 at 9:06:59, the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC) received a call from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, via the non-emergency phone line, reporting a cardiac arrest at the Reston Town Center Metro.” (The entire statement is below.)
In various statements Tuesday DPSC didn’t accept any responsibility for failing to initially pursue the address conflict, saying “DPSC dispatched resources based on an address given by the ROCC.” ROCC is Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center. In addition, the final statement on Tuesday says, “When given a common place name and physical address, DPSC seeks clarification before dispatching units to the physical address, as was the case here.”
Also, in this latest statement Fairfax County makes the case, “The DPSC call taker sought clarification and was again provided with the Wiehle Metro Station address. Following the second confirmation of the physical address, DPSC dispatched Fairfax County Fire and Rescue (FRD) resources to the incident at 9:08:45.”
The best STATter911 can tell is this is also wrong information from DPSC. The address was only mentioned once by Metro on the initial call. There was no further “clarification” or “second confirmation of the physical address” by the call-taker before fire and EMS were dispatched. The clarification didn’t come until the same call-taker called Metro back almost four minutes after the units were sent to the wrong location.
What happened between 9:07 and 9:15?
STATter911’s initial reporting of this story was mostly based on time-stamped radio traffic of the incident provided by OpenMHz.com. Careful listening of the radio transmissions left an open question about the delayed response: When did it become known inside DPSC that Fairfax County firefighters and medics might have been dispatched to the wrong Metro station? It’s a question Fairfax County refused to answer in March.
This is the radio transmission prompting that question:
At 9:15 a.m., when Engine 425 said they were on the Wiehle-Reston East Metro Station platform but there wasn’t a patient, the DPSC dispatcher said there was now additional information about the call. The dispatcher reported, “The last supplement indicates Reston Town Center Metro Station.”
STATter911 asked Fairfax County where did that new information in the “supplement” come from and what time did DPSC get it?
My initial guess, though wrong, was there might have been a second call from Metro or a passenger on the platform who called 911 with the correct address. In reality, as you’ll soon see, the source of that information about Reston Town Center was the initial 9:07 a.m. call from Metro. The problem is that crucial information wasn’t shared with responding firefighters and medics until 9:15, after they arrived at the wrong Metro platform.
Instead of answering questions about how the supplement was created Fairfax County provided a timeline based on the same radio traffic STATter911 already published.
DPSC’s failure to answer the question only raised suspicions that something was amiss. STATter911 refined the questions further, asking specifically what happened in the timeline between the initial call at 9:07 and 9:15 that prompted the supplement to be created.
On March 22, STATter911 received what was then DPSC’s final answer. A spokesperson said by phone that they thoroughly checked and there was nothing significant between 9:07 and 9:15 to indicate what occurred. Thanks to Henry Bright’s FOIA we now know that also wasn’t true.
Here’s what DPSC wouldn’t tell us
The 911 center’s event chronology shows the call-taker who took the initial call from Metro was concerned about the address. The call-taker worked on tracking down the conflict. She put in two comments in the dispatch notes or updates. The first came just 50-seconds after she got off the phone with Metro. That 9:10:51 entry says, “AT THE RESTON METRO–ABOVE ADDRESS IS WHAT CALLER WITH METRO RAIL GAVE.”
The next entry was at 9:11:56. It reads, “CALLER STATED RESTON TOWN CENTER METRO STATION AND PROVIDED ABOVE ADDRESS.” This appears to be the supplement the dispatcher cited to Engine 425. It’s the first mention in the event chronology of Reston Town Center.
Thirty-four seconds after the second comment the same call-taker called back Metro to further verify the address. What she learned in that call was Metro actually has three addresses for the Reston Town Center Metro Station. They correspond with separate entrances. Unfortunately, the first one, given initially by Metro, was wrong. The other two were correct and were then added in the comments. (Audio below.)
Despite the call-taker’s doubts about the correct location none of those concerns were relayed to the units responding to the wrong Metro station. This information was ignored or overlooked by dispatchers until it was confirmed Wiehle was a bad address. No one at DPSC attempted to cover the conflicting information by sending other fire and EMS to the Reston Town Center Metro Station. DPSC say that’s not its policy. The spokesperson relayed on Tuesday, “It’s not DPSC standard practice to send resources to multiple locations when an address accepted by CAD for dispatch has been provided, as was the case here.”
In its statements, DPSC indicates it isn’t relevant that the Metro worker clearly said at the very start of the conversation this incident was at the Reston Town Center Metro Station. DPSC makes the case the street address is the key information.
It was ten minutes after Metro said “Reston Town Center Metro Station” and almost five minutes after the first comment in the dispatch notes that DPSC finally sent firefighters and medics to the correct Metro platform. The one where a man was in cardiac arrest.
What you don’t know can’t hurt me
Knowing now what really happened inside Fairfax County 911 on the morning of March 20 shows why they didn’t want STATter911 or the public to learn the truth. The performance at what has long been considered one of the top 911 centers in the region and the country appears less than stellar. As they’ve written, DPSC disagrees with that assessment.
In addition, DPSC was very willing to let Metro take the entire blame for this tragic mistake. To its credit, Metro admitted its mistake. Its statements didn’t place blame on another agency or make excuses.
DPSC leadership steadfastly refuses to see a 911 center failure in actually having the correct information in-house from the start of this high-priority call and not promptly addressing or sharing that information. They also somehow believe providing clearly wrong information in multiple statements in March and again Tuesday is being both “transparent and forthcoming”. Remember, the same recordings and documents used to create this story have been available to DPSC since the day this occurred.
Fairfax County’s response to this situation is reminiscent to the philosophy of a long-gone county leader. He was quoted as often saying, “What you don’t know can’t hurt me.” That seemed to set the tone for decades of public information in the county. Nothing highlighted this more than the shooting, almost a decade ago, of John Geer by a Fairfax County police officer. The cover-up by top police and county officials was extensive and kept key information from Geer’s family, the public, and even prosecutors.
Then a Fairfax County resident, I was part of the commission set up to help guide the police department and county government through much needed reforms in the wake of Geer’s killing. As a commissioner, I was assigned to a group focusing on public information. The police department has since made great strides in sharing information about major incidents, including when there is a lethal use of force. Recently, its current chief quickly made clear that serious mistakes were made in the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed shoplifter. The officer was fired.
Yet ten years after John Geer, the 911 center somehow appears to operate under the old Fairfax County public information playbook. It’s not a good look and a case could be made that it’s also disrespectful to the memory of the man who died and his family. Every 911 center makes mistakes. It’s how you handle those mistakes that shows who you really are.