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D.C.’s 911 operation reportedly needs some emergency services of its own.
An independent audit of the crucial call system found it’s falling behind national standards. The Office of the D.C. Auditor released a report Tuesday that described systemic problems including inaccurate locating, unpredictable service, and cliques and bullying, at times facilitated by supervisors. The audit was completed by public safety communications consulting firm Federal Engineering Inc. They say D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications (UOC) experiences delays in getting help to residents due to these issues. The auditors looked at a sample of 72 calls. A vast majority of them saw delays in taking calls and dispatching responders when compared to national standards in 2019 and 2020.
Here are some of the big takeaways:
An Inconsistent, Abrasive Culture
FEI found both callers and dispatchers have adapted to doing their jobs “without consistent and direct oversight.” Some have succeeded in this environment while others have had repeat performance issues due to the independence. This has led to inconsistent service and at least 27 calls where call-takers were “clearly not following the script” and instead “ad-libbing and improvising.” The firm also says the process is “unnecessarily complicated” and can lead to more important calls getting overlooked.
Workplace culture has added to the already stressful job. FEI reported a culture of “cliques, bullying and uncorrected inappropriate behaviors” with supervisors potentially involved. Fire and Emergency Medical Services had a specific issue when their radio traffic was monitored:
“Monitoring revealed in some cases demeaning and unprofessional verbal mistreatment by the responders toward the dispatchers,” they said.
Location? Location? Location?
The technology exists to pinpoint where callers are, so why didn’t they use it? The audit found “call-takers do not trust the maps for locating cell phones” and rarely ever use it. Instead they rely on the caller’s descriptions to dispatch services to the scene.
“Observations also found that call-takers were routinely erasing the X/Y coordinates that auto-populate…and replacing it with the caller’s reported location. It appears that call-takers have been conditioned not to trust the location of cell phone callers.”
This has been a highly discussed issue, especially after emergency services went to the wrong location of a boating accident in August 2020. The dispatcher sent them five miles away to an entirely different river. The report says refresher training on this mostly unutilized system was allegedly rolled out in the weeks following the observation period.
Ward 7 or 8? Maybe A Longer Wait.
The audit finds response times by the Metropolitan Police Department can “vary widely” depending on how many units are in the area. It says Priority 1 calls (often regarding life-threatening or serious injury) took “approximately 20% longer” to reach residents in wards 7 and 8 over other areas of the District.
“This is due to elevated call volumes from these wards in the summer months,” the audit says.”The call volumes are reported to be more than twice that of other wards for Priority 1 calls.”
The audit calls for more MPD units during this uptick in calls. It adds FEMS response times were consistent across the wards.
What Are Officials Saying?
D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson, who began the audit last February, said in a press conference: “It’s always difficult to acknowledge problems with a service that’s a life or death service. You don’t want to admit that there can be anything wrong, because it is so scary and the stakes are so high.”
Cleo Subido, interim director of the Office of Unified Communications, said in a statement to WTOP progress has been made in leadership, location accuracy, and dispatching.
“Our agency slogan is ‘Measure and Improve,’” Subido said. “Every policy, procedure, process and program will be designed, developed, and deployed with these tenets in mind.”
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