WASHINGTON (DC News Now)—After years of reported issues at DC’s 911 call center, and more and more complaints recently, District leaders are searching for answers to the ongoing problems.
“I’m incredibly frustrated,” said Councilmember Charles Allen. “I just can’t allow leadership to pretend this is going to go away.”
Wednesday, Allen hosted an oversight roundtable to look at reported issues at the Office of Unified Communications, which handles 911 calls in the District.
It comes following a 2020 audit of the OUC, which made 31 recommendations for improvement. In September, District Auditor Kathy Patterson released a follow up report which stated “minimal progress” has been made to improve the center.
“The repeated instances of blown addresses, delayed dispatches, the morale… it all tells me something is not right,” said Allen.
Members of the public spoke at the roundtable, including two family members who said calls for loved ones were handled incorrectly.
“I would like to think one person’s life being lost would be enough for change, but that has not been the case,” said Aujah Griffin, who lost her father David Griffin in March.
Griffin said calls were made to 911 after her father was acting erratically and harming himself and property. When first responders arrived on the scene, they requested police assistance. Police did not arrive on the scene for another 30 minutes. During that time, her father jumped into the Washington Channel and drowned.
According to Griffin, MPD was dispatched to the wrong location. She believes if they had the correct address, and got there faster, her father could still be alive.
“Every time I see OUC failing yet another family it’s like another bandaid is ripped off once more,” she said.
Billie Shepperd also shared her story.
“Such a tragedy should not exist,” said Shepperd.
Her daughter Sheila Shepperd died in 2020 after dispatch sent EMS to the wrong address. Shepperd said her granddaughter made the 911 call and repeatedly gave them the correct address. Her granddaughter was left to do chest compressions on her mother alone for 20 minutes.
“This is a very, very difficult experience because I am one of the few that gained the reports that showed what happened at the dispatch center at 911 where my granddaughter, 13 years old, kept saying the appropriate address,” said Shepperd. “Not only was the ambulance and the service people sent to the wrong address, wrong quadrant but, arrived at the wrong address. It all took more than 20 minutes.”
During the roundtable, Allen hoped to hear an explanation for four separate failed 911 incidents that happened this year. But, he said the information was never provided by leaders at the OUC. And, Acting Director Karima Holmes was unable to speak because of a family emergency.
“From my perspective these instances show a lack of leadership in getting OUC call takers the training and resources they need to do their jobs,” said Allen.
The roundtable also included people who work with or represent workers in the call center, like Debbie Hart-Knox, President of NAGE Local R3-07, the union that represents call center employees. She defended Holmes.
“We choose to come to work daily. Just as Director Holmes chose to return to the OUC even with the attacks she sustains all too often for her to count,” said Hart-Knox.
Holmes previously served as director of the OUC. She left in 2021, but was later reappointed in 2022 by Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Hart-Knox said reappointing Holmes was a good thing. And, that she’s been unfairly blamed for the lack of response to the audit recommendations.
“The first notable difference was the aggressive approach of Director Holmes’ hiring process of our front line,” she said.
“The auditors came to OUC expecting changes when Director Holmes had only been in office 30 days. Normally a director is given 90 days to assess and come up with a plan to move forward,” said Hart-Knox.
Not everyone is thrilled to see Holmes back leading the agency.
Evan Yeats, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 4B01, said his commission passed a resolution opposing her permanent appointment.
“The experience of my constituents, say there are real problems faced by the residents of the DC. When Karima Holmes is in charge of the OUC, the office is less responsive, less likely to take accountability,” said Yeats.
Yeats also spoke at the roundtable. He’s been advocating for change at the call center years.
“Our community has had trouble getting consistent 911 response. That includes call takers correctly prioritizing calls, getting dispatches done in a timely fashion, ensuring the right resources are sent at the right time,” he said.
And, although he was grateful the roundtable happened, he said real change needs to happen.
“The District has now been struggling with this for two decades. To say that, oh everything is good we can just keep going with what we are is no longer an unacceptable answer. This has been too long,” said Yeats.
The roundtable will reconvene at a later date when Holmes is available. It’s unclear when that will be.