A week ago on Rock Creek Parkway, I came upon an accident. A motorcycle lay on its side in the roadway. Nearby, just off the road, a man was sprawled on the grass and some people were attending to him. Red flasher lights blinked, traffic slowed, but no ambulance was in sight. I gunned my car and headed home to call the police.
I dialed 911, and a woman answered. I reported the accident, giving the location at Rock Creek Parkway, a bit south of the Shoreham Hotel.
"What number block is that?" the woman asked.
"There is no number block," I said. "This is Rock Creek Parkway."
There was a pause, maybe 15 seconds, and then the woman asked, "What is the cross street?"
"There is no cross street," I said. "This is Rock Creek Parkway. The parkway that goes through Rock Creek Park."
"I have no Rock Creek Parkway on my computer," the woman said. "I have a Rock Creek Terrace and a Rock Creek Drive, but no Rock Creek Parkway. What is the cross street?"
As a journalist, I know the Park Police have jurisdiction for Rock Creek Park, but I also know that the District's ambulances respond to accidents there. I thought that the 911 number would suffice, that the Park Police would get the word from the emergency number. I also thought that a 911 operator would be familiar with Rock Creek Parkway, surely one of the major thoroughfares of Washington. No such luck.
"Look," I said, "I'm talking of Rock Creek Parkway, the road that goes through Rock Creek Park. The accident occurred just south of Calvert Street, but it is not a cross street. It's above the park."
"I have no Rock Creek Parkway on my computer."
This conversation is recounted from memory. The District has a tape of it, but I am told that getting it entails a lengthy, quasi-legal process. It may show that here and there I got a word wrong, but what it will not show is my despair and near-panic as I envisioned a man lying by the road, maybe dying. Instead, the operator and I were extremely civil. She called me "sir"; I called her "ma'am." But I wondered how the city of Washington could employ someone to deal with emergencies who seemed never to have heard of Rock Creek Parkway.
It turned out that the accident was a hit and run. According to the Park Police, a motorcycle carrying two people was sideswiped at 10:51 p.m. by a car traveling north in the southbound lane. The motorcycle's operator, a man, suffered multiple fractures of the leg. He was taken by helicopter to the Washington Hospital Center. His passenger, a woman, was taken to George Washington University Medical Center with soft-tissue damage. A Park Police spokeswoman did not know their condition.
Several times recently, the District has been criticized for its failure to respond to emergencies. In 1986, a Northwest man died when an improperly equipped ambulance responded. In September, a 69-year-old woman died after it took 25 minutes for an ambulance to respond. Last December, a 69-year-old man died when an ambulance did not respond at all. After each incident, as after each snow, city officials promise to do better. Unlike the city's response to snow, the issue is not inconvenience, but life and death.
Despairing of having the emergency operator dispatch an ambulance, I asked for the number of the Park Police. She asked me to wait and put me on hold. About 20 seconds elapsed. "It's 426-660." she said. I wrote it down on a matchbook cover.
"660 what?" I asked.
"660," the operator said.
"That's not a number! 660 what?"
"That's what they told me," the operator said. "Hold on, sir, I'll check. It's noisy in here." She seemed to put down the phone, yelled something and got a response. "462-6680," she said.
"Thank you," I said. I dialed the number rapidly but must have misdialed. (It's a correct number, but not the proper one for emergencies.) Disgusted, I called information, asked for the Park Police emergency number and was given 426-6600. An officer answered, I reported the accident, but was told the police already knew about it. He thanked me for calling.
In my conversation with the Park Police spokesman, she told me that 911 calls involving the Park Police are supposed to be routed directly to them. She also asked me if I had called the Metropolitan Police to ask what their excuse was. I told her that at one time I intended to, but then changed my mind.
There is no excuse.