D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said yesterday that he intends to fire five police officers and two civilian employees because their failures allowed the first 911 calls about a fatal house fire in Dupont Circle to be placed on hold.
Acting after weeks of complaints from neighborhood residents, Ramsey said he has recommended the firing of five police operators who were on duty but were "unplugged" instead of answering 911 calls when the fire began Jan. 15. He also moved to fire two of the operators' direct supervisors, one of whom is a police officer, and urged that two more supervisors face sanctions.
The chief's actions cover four of the five supervisors and five of 13 operators working at the city's emergency communications center the morning of the fire -- meaning that, in his view, half the police staff handling 911 calls during that shift made mistakes.
"It is a very serious issue, and I think we're taking it very seriously," Ramsey said yesterday. He said that 911 is "literally a lifeline to the community, and people need to take it seriously. You never know when that call is going to come in."
Ramsey's announcement marked another step in retreat by city officials, who at first denied that problems with 911 had delayed their response to the predawn fire that killed Christopher Smith, 24. Since then, they have acknowledged that neither the police department nor the fire department had enough operators answering 911 calls and determined that the first three people who called about the fire were put on hold.
The D.C. Council has criticized Ramsey for failing to shore up weaknesses in the chronically troubled 911 system, one of several fronts in what has already been a contentious year for the chief. Ramsey, who is in the midst of negotiations for a new contract, also has faced pressure from lawmakers about a rising homicide rate, gaps in police patrols and an internal report that found fault with police tactics that led to mass arrests during an anti-globalization demonstration in the fall.
Yesterday, council member Phil Mendelson sent a letter to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) asking that any new contract for Ramsey be submitted to the council for approval. In the letter, Mendelson wrote that "there are too many issues that have arisen regarding performance of the police department" to consider before a contract is finalized, with the 911 system heading the list.
"If we had not pushed and pushed and pushed, what . . . the chief is going to do would not have happened," Mendelson (D-At Large) said in an interview. "It's not the fire that has upset me. It's the fact . . . that [Ramsey] gave information that turned out not to be true."
Ramsey wasn't the only top official who initially raised doubts about residents' complaints that they could not reach 911 operators. Police operators handle all incoming calls and then refer those concerning fire emergencies to fire operators.
Deputy Mayor Margret Nedelkoff Kellems contended Feb. 13 that 911 problems did not create delays in getting firetrucks to the scene and said, "We need to be very careful before we start making allegations about the first responders."
Yesterday, Kellems, who oversees the police, said there was no evidence that Smith's death could have been prevented.
Tony Bullock, a spokesman for the mayor, said Williams had no comment on Ramsey's actions because he had not seen an internal police report on what took place.
The fire broke out before 6 a.m. in a brick rowhouse in the 1600 block of 21st Street NW, where eight people were living without working smoke detectors. The building was gutted and charred by the massive fire, and investigators have yet to determine its cause. Smith, in whose room the fire apparently started, was burned over 100 percent of his body and died several days later.
Soon after the fire, some neighborhood residents alleged that 911 calls were put on hold as early as 5:20 a.m., a contention that police disputed after reviewing telephone and other records. But the internal police investigation, ordered by Ramsey, turned up other problems.
The morning of the fire, Ramsey said, 13 people were assigned to work as police call takers, two more than the 11 recommended for a Wednesday morning. But one was on an authorized break, Ramsey said, and two others were due to get off work at 6 a.m. and "unplugged" five minutes early with their supervisor's permission. Those three do not face discipline.
Of the remaining 10 call takers, Ramsey said the five targeted for firing -- four police officers and one civilian -- were unplugged without permission.
The remaining five operators were on other calls when neighborhood residents started calling, Ramsey said. He said the first three calls about the fire -- two at 5:58 and one at 5:59 -- were put on hold. A police officer in the area was the first to notify the emergency call center of the fire by radio, at 6 a.m., and the first 911 call got through shortly after 6:01. Callers also encountered delays while being transferred to the operator assigned to take fire calls.
Ramsey declined to say what reasons the five operators had given for being unplugged without approval. "Nothing that they stated was acceptable," he said.
All nine employees targeted for firings or discipline have the right to appeal the punishments recommended for them. They will be removed from the 911 call center, Ramsey said, until the department makes a final ruling.
The chief declined to name those facing action or to release the full results of the investigation, citing privacy rules.
Police officials have said that they need 98 civilian operators to staff the 911 call center but have only 44. Any shortages are supposed to be covered by uniformed police officers, some of whom are not doing their regular duties because of injuries or ongoing disciplinary proceedings.
These officers are usually unhappy with the assignment and are not fully trained in dispatching procedures, according to the acting head of the D.C. police union, Sgt. Gregory Greene.
"You shouldn't put people in a job of that importance that don't want to be there," Greene said.