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News : D.C.’s 911 Center is Getting More Calls, But It’s Not Always Getting Them Right
Washington, DC, USA, Feb 4, 2016 -- In recent months, emergency call takers in the District sent a firetruck to the wrong address — on 14th Street instead of 40th Street.
They didn’t tell police the details of a license plate that a sharp-eyed citizen noticed and reported while witnessing a possible domestic dispute.
And when someone calling about a property theft asked why no officers were arriving, she was told that nobody was available because of a shift change. That was incorrect.
The 911 call center that sends police officers, firefighters and paramedics throughout the nation’s capital is struggling with accuracy and precision — even as it tries to get emergency units to the streets more quickly.
Since last spring, the agency has added three dozen call takers and dispatchers in its first round of hiring in eight years. The new hires have helped the city trim some call-pickup times and keep pace with a crush in volume. But gaps in 911 service remain, leaving some people critical of the system’s reliability.
"If you’re calling 911, you expect people to show up," said Melanie Sloan, whose son and neighbor made multiple calls and waited an hour and a half for police to respond to a theft from a car last month outside her home near Lincoln Park. "You call and call and call, and they don’t come. How many times do you need to call?"
A stolen bag is "not the crime of the century," but, Sloan said, the response points to bigger issues. She said she believes that had it not been for four calls to 911, police might not have shown up, and those who first took the call went to an incorrect address — Constitution Avenue, not Independence.
Capitol Hill residents like Sloan have been particularly vocal about such problems in part because law enforcement officials at community meetings have implored them to work with police to combat a spate of robberies.
Lt. Sean Conboy, a D.C. police spokesman, said reports of missteps by the 911 center are "a little bit exaggerated. There may be one or two calls once in a while where the information isn’t fully relayed," but the office is "doing a very good job the majority of the time to get us the information we need."
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who has heard numerous complaints from residents, considers the problems "more substantial." There’s a level of frustration, he said, that "calls are not being treated with urgency. You call because it’s urgent."
At an event announcing a task force to identify and stop repeat robbers, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier found themselves pressed about the 911 center’s problems.
The city has shifted $900,000 in the current budget to pay for additional call takers and is prepared to spend more, officials said. Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue said that training, not just more hiring, can also make a difference in how quickly the city processes emergency calls. By Donahue’s calculations, if the city can cut between 20 and 30 seconds from dispatch times, that would be the equivalent of hiring 20 additional people.
"We need to dispatch faster," he said.
More call takers hired
Etched along the roofline of the call center, which opened in 2006 on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast, is the phrase, "We can, we will safeguard our great city and our people." Inside the cavernous, dimly-lit main floor, call takers and dispatchers work overtime in 12-hour shifts to answer the rising number of calls, an 8 percent year-to-year increase that amounts to between 3,800 and 4,500 calls a day.
A large screen broadcasts the daily tally, available call takers and the level of service for the independent agency that coordinates responses for the city’s police, fire and emergency medical services.
Call takers are the front line, answering the phones when residents and visitors punch 911. The information they gather is then relayed to a separate team of dispatchers, who also sit on the office’s main floor. Dispatchers, in turn, communicate with one of the three emergency departments.
Since April, the agency has hired and trained 36 people to handle 911 calls, and this month, it is preparing to bring in an additional 18. There are signs of improvement, including calls being answered more quickly more often and a significant dip in abandoned or dropped calls.
In the last three months of 2015, the center met its goal of answering 95 percent of calls within five seconds, compared with June and July, when it was about 89 percent. A national standard is less stringent, requiring 90 percent of calls to be picked up within 10 seconds.
Still, city officials say that 12-hour shifts are "not optimal" for such a high-stress job.
"You’re talking to people on their worst day. It’s a hard job to do normally, and then to do it for 12 hours, that’s a lot," said Christopher Geldart, who was interim director for the past nine months and also leads the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Bowser has appointed Karima Holmes, the former head of a regional emergency communications center in Texas, as the office’s new director.
Concerns about the call center, known as the D.C. Office of Unified Communications, led to the departure of its then-director last spring. Her resignation came after firefighters were delayed in responding to a deadly smoke incident in a Metro tunnel in January 2015. Two months later, paramedics just blocks from the home of a choking toddler were not sent there. Instead, a unit about a mile away was sent. The boy later died.
Atop those errors, the former director, Jennifer A.J. Greene, also could not explain to the D.C. Council why the city’s dispatch times are much longer than a national standard of 90 seconds. The city routinely clocks in between 120 and 130 seconds. At the time, Greene said the standard was not necessarily realistic — a response that did not satisfy some council members. Greene resigned days after the hearing.
Fairfax County, which has a call center that peers recognize as one of the country’s premier operations, has an average dispatch time of 127 seconds — comparable to the District’s.
And like Greene, the head of the Fairfax center questions whether the 90-second standard is a practical performance measure. Steve Souder, director of the Fairfax call center, said new complexities, such as unreliable cellphone location data for callers and an increase in non-English speakers calling 911 centers, put a premium on accuracy over speed to get aid where it is needed.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Friday, February 5, 2016