The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers, residents blast D.C.’s 911 call center at council hearing

The Office of Unified Communications building in 2013. (Jared Soares for The Washington Post)

The chairman of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee called for a “fundamental cultural shift” at the city’s 911 call center.

A woman, whose daughter died two years ago after missteps at the 911 center delayed emergency response, described how her 13-year-old granddaughter had tried in vain to perform CPR.

And the council member representing an area where a man died this month after an 11-minute ambulance delay said she is at a “loss for words” and “deeply alarmed” by the state of the agency.

Testifying on Wednesday at an oversight hearing for the city agency responsible for dispatching emergency responders, the three slammed the D.C. Office of Unified Communications (OUC) for delayed and inaccurate dispatches, and failing to take responsibility for breakdowns.

The criticism follows a September report by the city auditor that said OUC officials had made only “minimal progress” on a little more than 75 percent of the 31 recommendations her office had made last year. And it comes as council members will soon consider whether to confirm Karima Holmes, the OCU’s acting director, whom Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently nominated to run the agency in a permanent capacity.

This summer alone, the dispatch center sent firefighters to the wrong address for a newborn in cardiac arrest and made mistakes that delayed the arrival of paramedics trying to reach a 3-month-old boy who had been left in a car.

“Putting it bluntly, we’ve been here before,” said the public safety committee’s chair, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), referring to past OUC oversight hearings where lawmakers discussed similar issues. “It’s about leadership and how the government needs to run.”

Billie Shepperd, whose daughter Sheila Shepperd died two years ago, told listeners Wednesday about all that was lost when missteps at the 911 call center delayed an ambulance as her 13-year-old granddaughter, who weighed less than 100 pounds at the time, tried to perform CPR on her mother.

“This has been horrible for me,” she said. “It has affected a whole family and a community and a city because so much more could have been given.”

Shepperd said no one from the city reached out to her to apologize for what happened.

Aujah Griffin, whose father, David Griffin, died in March after dispatchers initially classified the 911 call as non-urgent, said she has not received an explanation about why the response was not escalated.

“It’s embarrassing to be a District government official and know that was our response to your father and to you,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At large).

In advance of the hearing, Allen said he asked OUC for timelines, transcripts and additional information for four separate incidents, in addition to the current status of the agency’s progress on each recommendation in the auditor’s report. He said he received no response.

Holmes planned to testify at the oversight hearing but had a family emergency, Allen said.

Multiple people at the oversight hearing, including two with the union representing 911 and 311 call takers, spoke in support of Holmes — describing her leadership as much-needed, crediting her with improving hiring practices, and stressing that many challenges in the District are common across the country.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) questioned whether the witnesses were asked to testify on Holmes’s behalf — an allegation that at least two of those who spoke denied. Allen stressed that Wednesday’s hearing was not meant to be about Holmes’s confirmation.

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