Janice Quintana says her agency has a near-perfect record. She supervises the people who handle 311 and 911 calls, a line of work where errors are not an option. “Our accuracy rate is 99.99 percent,” says Quintana.
That’s quite a claim. Quintana, after all, supervises a staff of about 150 call takers—human beings, that is, not robots or computers or other virtually faultless devices. They handle a volume of about 1.6 million annual calls to 311 and 911.
At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson isn’t buying the claim that all those people have generated a .01 failure rate. “Any time I hear somebody say 99.9 percent are accurate, that sounds to me like a way of trying to cover up that there are too many mistakes,” he says.
Perfect, near-perfect, or mistake-ridden, the city’s emergency response system is in for a test. Earlier this month, Quintana’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC)—which dispatches both the police and fire departments—also absorbed the mayor’s citywide call center. It means that citizens should now call 311 instead of (202) 727-1000 for things like acquiring new trash bins and smoke detectors. With the merging of the two numbers, some nonemergency calls that require a police response are now supposed to go to 911 instead of 311.
The number shuffling, says Mendelson, appears guaranteed to place more stress on 911 and its operators—a point that the councilmember emphasized to Quintana in a council hearing last week. “Adding to 911 calls that formerly were going to 311 that were a lower priority and were treated as such is going to slow down emergency response,” said Mendelson. “I am dismayed at the way this has been communicated.”
Where Mendelson sees more mistakes in the pipeline, emergency response officials have few worries. The OUC’s 911 operation manager Kenneth Mallory says that in fiscal year 2007, he conducted more than 100 investigations of possible errors and found that the OUC messed up only eight times—that’s eight 911 calls among 986,000. He says some errors aren’t even the OUC’s fault. “I’m just too courteous to point the finger at anybody outside of the OUC,” he says.
Several firefighters consulted by the Washington City Paper were not so courteous. One recalls getting sent to S Street, “S as in celery,” and Q Street, “as in cucumber.” On another call, he says his engine company was told to be aware of “hazardous maternals.”
Several more lapses in communication were discovered by City Paper, although they may not have turned up in Mallory’s “error” column:
• On Dec. 11, 2006, a fire engine was dispatched to the 4100 block of Nebraska Avenue NW, according to a communication tracking form. When firefighters reported finding nothing, the dispatcher told them to check the intersection of Nebraska and New Mexico Avenues, a few hundred feet south. Firefighters again found nothing, at which point dispatchers insisted—incorrectly—that the incident had occurred at 4100 Nebraska and that R was in progress. “The actual location was in front of 4602 Rockwood Parkway,” the document says.
• On a recording from Feb. 3, 2007, a female dispatcher’s voice is slow and slurry as she mixes up an address, first telling several engine companies to go to a house at 701 G St. NW, then to a basement apartment at the same address, then apartment No. 2 at 101 G St. SW. Quintana says the dispatcher was fired.
• On Jan. 22, an engine company responded to a low-grade alarm in a building on the 600 block of 9th Street NW. When firefighters arrived and smelled smoke throughout the building, they requested the alarm be upgraded to bring in more units, including a battalion chief. An event chronology transcript shows that the dispatcher did not upgrade the alarm for more than four minutes, and that it happened only after an assistant chief repeated the request.
Mallory says that’s not an error: The delay occurred because in those four minutes, the dispatcher had to send units to deal with four life-and-death emergencies in other parts of the city, including a triple shooting.
“They’re taught in communications to deal with life before property,” he says, noting that the smoky building was already being evacuated. On top of that, Mallory says dispatchers were changing shifts at the time.
• On Aug. 6, 2007, dispatchers sent an ambulance to a building on the 900 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW. The caller was in the lobby. In a space labeled “remarks,” the dispatcher wrote: “SHE SAID HER PUSSY STINKS.” Quintana says the info was nothing but an appropriate verbatim report of what the caller said.
• On the afternoon of Oct. 29 last year, 911 operators received multiple calls about a fire in a Northeast Capitol Hill row house.
“Something just blew up!” said a male caller, according to a transcript and audio recording of the call obtained by City Paper. “Propane or something,” the man guessed, correctly. Another caller said, “My neighbor across the alley—their house is exploding!”
“OK, is it on fire, you’re saying, ma’am?” the operator said.
“It is on fire—they’re exploding!”
The Dispatcher did not relay word of an explosion to firefighters, according to the transcripts. Four firefighters were injured, two critically, but not as a result of the explosion.
Mallory denies the information was withheld, saying that after reviewing the audio he was satisfied with the dispatcher’s performance.
Local firefighter union vice president Stephen Fennell has a different take on the matter. “I certainly blame this on [the dispatchers],” says Fennell. “The way they attacked that fire would have been totally different” if they had known about an explosion and possibly gas-fed fire.
It’s not the first time dispatchers failed to mention an explosion. In January 2005, a dozen people called 911 and reported hearing explosions in an apartment building on the 2300 block of Good Hope Road SE. Two civilians, including an 18-month-old girl, died from injuries sustained in the fire. A firefighter suffered severe injuries when he fell 40 feet down an elevator shaft. The elevator doors had been blown open by the explosion; when the firefighter looked at the opening through thick smoke, he thought he was looking into an apartment unit.
An investigation of the fire department’s response concluded that “the transcripts of the radio transmissions and notes of the call takers are evidence that most of the personnel of the [Office of Unified Communications] do not have a grasp of the terminology and operational procedures of the Fire/EMS Department.” The investigation team’s primary recommendation was for the OUC’s fire dispatching operations to be returned to the fire department.
Fennell says his union has been “screaming for years” for more training for civilians and better fire representation at the OUC. Before 2005, the city’s police and fire departments controlled their own emergency dispatchers. In September 2006, the District unveiled a state-of-the-art “Unified Communications Center” to house the new agency. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff hailed the $116 million building as “a great model for the rest of the country.”
“It’s a model joke, is what it is,” says Fennell, who worked as a dispatcher part-time for 10 years of his career as a firefighter. “You have a group of people who have limited or no experience to the fire service at all,” he says.
Asked if recovering oversight of the OUC was a goal for D.C. Fire and EMS, spokesman Alan Etter replies by e-mail: “The operational intervention that has occurred since that time [of the Good Hope Road fire in 2005] was to install a fire liaison at OUC—this is a lieutenant who is detailed to that agency to help.” The liaison program has been in effect for a couple of months.
“This program has been successful,” he writes.