In recent months, emergency call takers in the District sent a firetruck to the wrong address — on 14th Street instead of 40th Street.
They didn’t tell police the details of a license plate that a sharp-eyed citizen noticed and reported while witnessing a possible domestic dispute.
And when someone calling about a property theft asked why no officers were arriving, she was told that nobody was available because of a shift change. That was incorrect.
The 911 call center that sends police officers, firefighters and paramedics throughout the nation’s capital is struggling with accuracy and precision — even as it tries to get emergency units to the streets more quickly.
Since last spring, the agency has added three dozen call takers and dispatchers in its first round of hiring in eight years. The new hires have helped the city trim some call-pickup times and keep pace with a crush in volume. But gaps in 911 service remain, leaving some people critical of the system’s reliability.
“If you’re calling 911, you expect people to show up,” said Melanie Sloan, whose son and neighbor made multiple calls and waited an hour and a half for police to respond to a theft from a car last month outside her home near Lincoln Park. “You call and call and call, and they don’t come. How many times do you need to call?”
A stolen bag is “not the crime of the century,” but, Sloan said, the response points to bigger issues. She said she believes that had it not been for four calls to 911, police might not have shown up, and those who first took the call went to an incorrect address — Constitution Avenue, not Independence.
Capitol Hill residents like Sloan have been particularly vocal about such problems in part because law enforcement officials at community meetings have implored them to work with police to combat a spate of robberies.
Lt. Sean Conboy, a D.C. police spokesman, said reports of missteps by the 911 center are “a little bit exaggerated. There may be one or two calls once in a while where the information isn’t fully relayed,” but the office is “doing a very good job the majority of the time to get us the information we need.”
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who has heard numerous complaints from residents, considers the problems “more substantial.” There’s a level of frustration, he said, that “calls are not being treated with urgency. You call because it’s urgent.”
At an event announcing a task force to identify and stop repeat robbers, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier found themselves pressed about the 911 center’s problems.
The city has shifted $900,000 in the current budget to pay for additional call takers and is prepared to spend more, officials said. Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue said that training, not just more hiring, can also make a difference in how quickly the city processes emergency calls. By Donahue’s calculations, if the city can cut between 20 and 30 seconds from dispatch times, that would be the equivalent of hiring 20 additional people.
“We need to dispatch faster,” he said.
Etched along the roofline of the call center, which opened in 2006 on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast, is the phrase, “We can, we will safeguard our great city and our people.” Inside the cavernous, dimly-lit main floor, call takers and dispatchers work overtime in 12-hour shifts to answer the rising number of calls, an 8 percent year-to-year increase that amounts to between 3,800 and 4,500 calls a day.
A large screen broadcasts the daily tally, available call takers and the level of service for the independent agency that coordinates responses for the city’s police, fire and emergency medical services.
Call takers are the front line, answering the phones when residents and visitors punch 911. The information they gather is then relayed to a separate team of dispatchers, who also sit on the office’s main floor. Dispatchers, in turn, communicate with one of the three emergency departments.
Since April, the agency has hired and trained 36 people to handle 911 calls, and this month, it is preparing to bring in an additional 18. There are signs of improvement, including calls being answered more quickly more often and a significant dip in abandoned or dropped calls.
In the last three months of 2015, the center met its goal of answering 95 percent of calls within five seconds, compared with June and July, when it was about 89 percent. A national standard is less stringent, requiring 90 percent of calls to be picked up within 10 seconds.
Still, city officials say that 12-hour shifts are “not optimal” for such a high-stress job.
“You’re talking to people on their worst day. It’s a hard job to do normally, and then to do it for 12 hours, that’s a lot,” said Christopher Geldart, who was interim director for the past nine months and also leads the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Bowser has appointed Karima Holmes, the former head of a regional emergency communications center in Texas, as the office’s new director.
Concerns about the call center, known as the D.C. Office of Unified Communications, led to the departure of its then-director last spring. Her resignation came after firefighters were delayed in responding to a deadly smoke incident in a Metro tunnel in January 2015. Two months later, paramedics just blocks from the home of a choking toddler were not sent there. Instead, a unit about a mile away was sent. The boy later died.
Atop those errors, the former director, Jennifer A.J. Greene, also could not explain to the D.C. Council why the city’s dispatch times are much longer than a national standard of 90 seconds. The city routinely clocks in between 120 and 130 seconds. At the time, Greene said the standard was not necessarily realistic — a response that did not satisfy some council members. Greene resigned days after the hearing.
Fairfax County, which has a call center that peers recognize as one of the country’s premier operations, has an average dispatch time of 127 seconds — comparable to the District’s.
And like Greene, the head of the Fairfax center questions whether the 90-second standard is a practical performance measure. Steve Souder, director of the Fairfax call center, said new complexities, such as unreliable cellphone location data for callers and an increase in non-English speakers calling 911 centers, put a premium on accuracy over speed to get aid where it is needed.
Improving response times is not “as simple as finding more people. It’s training, supervision and management to really get folks to be an effective team,” said Christopher Carver, former director of dispatch operations for the New York City Fire Department who now works for the National Emergency Number Association.
The most well-regarded call centers gather just enough “hot-button information” to get responders on the road to emergencies before going back to callers for more detail, Carver said.
The District’s call center is ramping up training to encourage employees to be aggressive about getting units rolling more quickly.
“We’re constantly working on bringing down the numbers — how quickly can we get the right information to people to respond?” Geldart said. “We’d love to get to 90. I’m just not sure it’s feasible.”
Working the 911 line requires a combination of qualities — soothing and reassuring to keep frantic, emotional callers calm and safe, but also speedy and firm to elicit the information needed to get responders to a scene safely.
Call takers, who must have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree, are paid $46,800 a year after a probation period. New recruits go through an initial 10 weeks of training that include a long list of classes, such as CPR and customer service. There are also psychological screenings and background checks.
“You can’t lose it. You have to stay focused,” said Virginia Sanford, who is both a call taker and dispatcher and trains colleagues. “It’s your job to calm them down, to get through the curse words.”
With as many as three computer screens running at once, a call taker quickly enters locations, phone numbers and descriptions — and is required to ask for addresses and phone numbers twice. Even then, there is room for error.
Before dawn on New Year’s Day, firefighters set out for what they thought was a burning apartment building on 14th Street in Northwest. Call takers send information about an emergency to dispatchers within seconds of answering but stay on the line for follow-up questions. Two minutes and 40 seconds into the call about the fire, the call taker asked for confirmation of the address.
The call taker had misheard the street.
The correct site was more than three miles away on 40th Street in Northwest. By the time the mix-up was corrected, firefighters had already arrived at 14th Street.
No one was injured in the fire, which a separate unit extinguished. The call taker is being supervised while the agency conducts an ongoing review to determine whether the mistake, first reported by Fox 5, should result in a suspension. “Our protocols are right. Our call taker didn’t follow them properly,” Geldart said.
To gather the information first responders need during often-chaotic and panic-filled calls, those answering are trained to follow a series of questions tailored to the type of emergency being reported.
But some situations defy neat computer-generated prompts, as an emergency last fall proved.
Jogging around RFK Stadium one Sunday, Becket Adams caught a glimpse of something unusual inside an orange Fiat parked in Lot 7. He doubled back. A woman was being held down by her hair by the driver, her arms flailing. Adams called 911 and reported the vehicle’s make, color and license plate and what he was seeing.
The car left before police arrived. Adams, a journalist who lives in Arlington, and a friend spent the next few days trying to find out what happened to the woman. Adams tried unsuccessfully to reach someone at the 911 center and the police department. His friend, Anneke Green, questioned city leaders at a community meeting two days later.
After the meeting, police tracked down the two people from the parking lot. There had been a fight, but no one was hurt. Police told Adams and Green, however, that “there was clearly a breakdown of communication from what you provided and what was relayed to the officers.”
“The tag number for the vehicle was never given although you clearly gave the information,” the police captain who investigated wrote in an email. The captain said he would notify the 911 agency about the misstep.
Three months later, after The Washington Post asked about the October incident, Adams’s call was replayed for the call center employee. Geldart said that because the call taker was typing in a form designed for domestic disputes, she was not prompted to enter a license plate. The call taker should have diverted from the form to ask about the tag number, Geldart said.
“You can have all the technology and software in the world, but at the end of the day, it’s a judgment call,” he said. “This whole process is a human process.”
Human error — on the part of the 911 center and police — also played a role last month in the hour and a half it took officers to respond to the theft on Independence Avenue. Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, said police might have found the thief in the neighborhood had a unit arrived sooner.
Conboy said that the delayed response was “not in keeping with our standard.”
Police initially were unavailable because of other calls that afternoon — not because of a shift change, as Sloan’s neighbor was told. Dispatchers give priority to incidents involving immediate danger, such as a burning building, shooting or heart attack.
Once a police unit on the Hill was free, however, the officer went to the wrong address — something Conboy said was “unusual.”
It would take a fourth call to 911 and 45 more minutes for an officer to arrive at Sloan’s house.
Aaron C. Davis and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.
The center that handles 911 calls for the District’s police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel recorded the largest number of calls in the city’s history last year. Officials from the D.C. Office of Unified Communications provided these tips for D.C. residents and visitors using the 911 system:
●High-profile incidents, such as a rush-hour vehicle collision or weekend shooting, result in many people calling 911 at the same time. Do not hang up if your call is not immediately answered. Stay on the phone, or when you dial again, your call will be relegated to the back of the queue — for an even longer wait.
●Frustrated by the long list of questions from 911 operators? Feel as if they are repeating themselves? Even as they are asking questions, they are relaying information to dispatchers. The additional information they gather will help first responders once they get to the scene.
●Dispatchers prioritize incidents involving immediate danger, such as a burning building, shooting or heart attack.