May 9, 2013

ONE MINUTE 7 seconds doesn’t seem like a long time. But if you are on hold with 911 while struggling with a burglar (as recently happened to a District woman), that time becomes an eternity. It also becomes unacceptable, which is why further investigation is needed into whether there are systemic problems with the District’s emergency dispatch.

Administration officials have acknowledged the wait experienced May 4 by Kathleen Burke was “longer than average.” Ms. Burke confronted an intruder in her Northwest home and, after a scuffle, followed him while trying to get through to 911 on her cellphone. “Stunned” is how she characterized hearing the repeated recorded message. The generally accepted national standard is to answer 90 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds and 95 percent within 20 seconds. How critical each second is can be seen in the fact that police were on the scene within four minutes of being dispatched.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose committee has oversight over the Office of Unified Communications, said a report he received from the deputy mayor for public safety attributed the delay to higher-than-normal call volume that day (4,200 compared to the average 3,800) and the available dispatchers (12 were working, but three were on break or bathroom relief) being busy with other emergencies (including a call about gunshots) that all came in at the same time.

There have been other, anecdotal reports of problems. A woman who tried to report a car crash on May 5 detailed in a recent letter to this page being placed on hold for more than 15 minutes. By the time her call was answered, Amy Roma told us in a subsequent phone call, she had driven past the location and was handicapped in providing the exact location of the accident. Ms. Roma said no one from the District government has contacted her since the letter’s publication to ask about her experience.

That’s troubling. So is the story relayed to us by a District resident of an operator seeming to nod off during a call. (To be fair, we also heard compliments about calls handled with dispatch by a service that has made great strides since notorious troubles in the late 1990s.) Is staffing an issue, as the union representing dispatchers claims? The administration plans to change shifts from 10 hours to 12 hours, which it says will result in a more efficient operation that is better equipped to handle spikes in calls. But the union argues, not unreasonably to our mind, that the jobs are already stressful and require great attention to detail; longer hours, it says, may mean tired operators and more mistakes, and it won’t solve the issue of not enough trained personnel. The D.C. Council, now in the midst of budget deliberations, must take a careful look at whether this agency, the critical first link in public safety, has the resources it needs.