Update on the Request for OUC Audit - We're Getting One!!!
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
The Office of the D.C. Auditor is moving forward with an audit of the Office of Unified Communications. ODCA issued a Request For Proposals from consulting firms to conduct the audit, and plans to make a selection by late October.
“This audit will evaluate the effectiveness of OUC’s 911 Operations Division against national standards, review a sample of 911 call recording and data, evaluate OUC culture and training, review OUC’s technological capabilities, and review OUC’s internal investigations of past incidents,” the request reads. OUC did not immediately respond to DCist’s request for comment.
D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson tells DCist in an email that she expects the audit to be “comprehensive,” and says the office’s more comprehensive projects take close to a year. Depending on the bids ODCA receives and assuming they “don’t have to fight for access to information,” she does not expect to have a finished report until summer of 2021 or later.
For years, local officials and residents have raised alarms over mishandled dispatches by the District’s Office of Unified Communications, which handles the city’s 911 calls. A recent error during a water-rescue operation in the Potomac River has renewed calls for transparency, and the city says it may be opening its own investigation into the issue.
Earlier this month, police recovered the bodies of three men who had been boating in the Potomac River and gone overboard: Mustafa Haidar, 26; Ahmad “Johnny” Noory, 28; and Omid Rabani, 23.
Vito Maggiolo, a spokesperson for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, says the agency’s fire boats and the Metropolitan Police Department’s harbor patrol unit responded to a maritime distress call from the vessel.
The fire boat officer requested help with the search, giving the location as adjacent to the Capital Cove Marina at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. OUC, however, dispatched land units to the Anacostia Community Boathouse, over 5 miles away and on the wrong river.
Fire and EMS’ incident commander heard the misdirected dispatch and “immediately corrected it,” per Maggiolo. A spokesperson for OUC told the Washington Post in a statement that the dispatcher made an error.
Dave Statter, a former WUSA 9 reporter who runs the fire and EMS news site Statter911, first reported the discrepancy.
But residents and local officials say the incident was among the latest in a long line of errors and mistakes OUC has made in dispatching emergency response personnel. Now, following a letter from Ward 4 ANC Commissioner Evan Yeats earlier this year, the D.C. auditor’s office is considering an investigation into issues at OUC.
OUC did not respond to DCist’s repeated requests for comment by publishing time.
Yeats says he was aware of ways OUC had mishandled various incidents before he was elected in the fall of 2018. He calls the subject a matter of “personal interest,” having previously worked both in emergency medical services and in a job dispatching police in Iowa.
He continued hearing about the botched dispatches when he entered office. In one instance, one of his constituents, Regina-Carmen Page, notified him of her own troubling experience with OUC.
On the morning of Oct. 31, 2018, a friend of Page’s neighbor, Natalie Larmon, showed up at their apartment building concerned for Larmon’s health, according to testimony Page submitted to the D.C. Council’s Committee On the Judiciary and Public Safety in February 2019.
Larmon’s friend had been unable to reach her, despite Larmon, who had been ill, having expected her arrival for “transport to a medical appointment.” After knocking on Larmon’s door and receiving no response, the friend called 911. Page, who is 59, also called the building’s management company to request that the residential manager check on Larmon.
Roughly a half-hour passed, and first responders had yet to arrive. The pair called again, both via 911 and D.C.’s alternate emergency line, 202-265-9100, and the dispatcher assured Page that help was on the way. The residential manager arrived shortly after, and they entered the unit, finding Larmon unresponsive and face-down on her bedroom floor, per the testimony.
The pair then called both numbers again, and Page was once again told that help was on the way. Moments later, a D.C. police officer arrived, followed by D.C. Fire and EMS, approximately 40 minutes after the initial call.
Around the same time, Page also received a call back from the 911 dispatcher to confirm that there was an unresponsive person at the scene, and, she says, began to question Page about her characterization of the incident, saying that she had requested a “wellness check” and not a “welfare check,” she wrote in her testimony, “as if to repurpose my words and justify a likely low prioritization of the initial dispatch.”
Page says she tried to convey the seriousness of the situation as best she could on the call, regardless of terminology.
“A layman is not necessarily going to try to find the right word as it relates to ‘wellness’ or ‘welfare,’ ” she tells DCist. “They try to communicate some sense of urgency about the situation, so I just thought it was petty for them to even challenge me on that, because we made it very clear what her circumstances were likely to be.”
Larmon was pronounced dead in her apartment less than an hour later.
Yeats contacted OUC and received a response from Kelly Brown, the executive assistant to the director, saying that OUC had conducted an investigation into the incident. Brown said the call center employee had used “probing techniques” to get critical information to provide to Fire and EMS personnel.
“Understandably, the caller was distressed and may have misinterpreted the call taker’s affect,” Brown wrote.
Page doesn’t know if the delay impacted the outcome, and was grateful to the first responders. “But they’re only gonna get there when they know that they need to get there and with whatever urgency they need to get there,” she says. “So, I’m putting the onus on the Office of Unified Communications. I feel like they did not respond appropriately.”
Yeats’ concerns culminated with the agency’s handling of a fatal house fire in D.C’s Brightwood neighborhood last August. The fire, which occurred in an unlicensed rental on Kennedy Street NW that officials said was rife with fire hazards, killed a 40-year-old man named Fitsum Kebede and 9-year-old Yafet Solomon. The landlord was later charged with murder.
Officers on the scene told the 911 center that people were inside the burning building, but it took OUC 4 minutes to get help out the door, Fox 5 D.C. (WTTG) reported at the time. That number is more than double the national standard time to transfer calls to dispatch for high-priority emergencies as published by the National Fire Protection Association, at 60 seconds or less 90% of the time.
During that time, the officers were trying to get inside the building, but didn’t have the equipment to get through a steel-barred door. An OUC spokesperson told Fox 5 that the delay resulted from getting the information over police radio rather than a phone call to 911.
In the wake of the fire, several ANC boards drafted resolutions and noted concerns about OUC’s performance. In a response, Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure Lucinda Babers, in coordination with OUC and other city agencies, wrote that OUC “continues to review what happened in this situation to evaluate what can be learned and to determine what can be done better.”
Babers said the standard from NFPA “has not been fully adopted by the 911 industry.” She also noted that the standard applies to calls to 911, but “does not include the dispatching portion of call management, nor is it applicable to calls for service made over radio communications.”
She added that the overall response, which took seven minutes from the first radio communication to the arrival of the first Fire and EMS unit was “well within the District’s average response time.”
But according to the agency’s performance report from fiscal 2019, only about 64% of calls were routed to dispatch within 60 seconds, well below its own goal of 75%. The number marks an improvement from 2018, which saw about 61%, but both are lower than 2017’s high of 67%.
who introduced one of the resolutions, says after seeing the news about the incident in the Potomac, “it’s very concerning that a year later we’re still seeing these same issues over and over again.”
OUC’s conduct has been scrutinized over the years, and Statter has reported many similar recent errors. Yeats and Johnson also both note issues with efficient cross-border coordination between agencies in Maryland and Virginia.
But D.C.’s 911 system had well-documented problems even before OUC. Between its outdated technology, delays in answering calls, and poor coordination between MPD and Fire and EMS, according to OUC’s website, by the late 1990s, “Public confidence in 911 had been seriously eroded to the point that the District was facing nothing short of a public safety crisis.”
The city opened the Public Safety Communications Center, which “greatly improved” 911 service, according to the city. OUC was originally established in 2004, taking over management of the PSCC, and its responsibilities included all 911 and 311 call-taking, as well as police, fire, and medical dispatch.
Still, problems have persisted.
In late May, Yeats sent a letter on behalf of ANC 4B to D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson requesting that she open an independent audit into OUC’s emergency call-taking, benchmarking its performance against national and international standards. The letter also requested an audit of OUC’s 311 system, which gives locals a way to reach the city regarding government services and information, from trash removal to pothole repairs and police non-emergencies.
Now more than ever, the OUC is the primary face of the District government,” the letter read. “We have concerns about reports that the Office continues to mishandle emergency calls in ways that could put both the public and emergency responders at risk.”
It continued, “These concerns are not new and have occurred repeatedly in our Commission and surrounding area, but they are magnified both by the volume of calls and the high-stakes nature of accurate call-taking due to the [COVID-19] public health emergency.”
Diane Shinn, a spokesperson for the Office of the D.C. Auditor, told DCist in an email that the letter had “called our attention to OUC issues,” and said they are considering adding such an audit to their work plan for fiscal 2021.
They typically share the work plan with the D.C. Council on Oct. 1.
Johnson, of Ward 4, says an audit would provide helpful information for determining the source of the problems. “Is this a widespread OUC systemic problem? Is this one or two possible individuals that need to be retrained?” she asks. “We don’t have the data to really speculate as to how widespread this is.”
She adds, “We are not trying at all to — to quote my daughter — ‘put anyone on blast,’ ” emphasizing that she and her colleagues are ready and willing to work with OUC and other city agencies to address the issues.
Page is also looking forward to seeing the results of a potential investigation, she says, “because I think that my neighbor and the citizens of this area, they deserve a much better response.”