D.C.'s 911 system struggles to pinpoint where emergencies are happening, audit says The audit was undertaken after three men drowned in a boating accident on the Potomac in 2020. Emergency responders had traveled to the wrong location.
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D.C.'s 911 system struggles to pinpoint where emergencies are happening, audit says

Emergency call-takers in D.C. don't always trust technology that provides the location of cell callers, says a new audit. D.C. Fire and EMS/Twitter hide caption

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D.C. Fire and EMS/Twitter

A new audit of D.C.'s emergency call system finds that the people tasked with answering 911 calls in the city sometimes struggle to pinpoint a caller's exact location and fall short of national standards for dispatching services in a timely manner, among other issues affecting how D.C. responds to emergencies.

The audit undertaken by Federal Engineering, Inc. on behalf of the D.C. Auditor also found that dispatch times for high-priority calls in wards 7 and 8 are approximately 20% longer than other wards between May and October, peaking in July every year, due to "elevated call volumes from these wards in the summer months."

The report recommends several reforms to the Office of Unified Communications that could improve the city's response to fires, traffic collisions, and other life-or-death situations, including increasing the number of police units in wards 7 and 8 during summer and early fall.

But overall, problems at the agency are fixable, the audit says, and some reforms are already underway.

The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor commissioned the audit in response to media coverage and complaints from ANCs that "detailed OUC failures to handle calls timely and send first responders to the correct locations," says a press release from ODCA.

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In 2020, three men fatally drowned in the Potomac River after D.C. dispatched rescuers to the wrong location of a boating accident. Their deaths brought more scrutiny to issues that residents have raised for years about botched responses to emergencies.

To undertake the audit, Federal Engineering, Inc., reviewed call receipt and processing data from 2019 and 2020, analyzed 72 randomly selected calls to Fire and Emergency Services and D.C. Police, and interviewed staff members.

Auditors found that emergency call-takers don't always trust the locations provided by their location determining technology, which is supposed to help responders pinpoint the exact coordinates of an emergency so they can send help where it's needed. The technology doesn't rebid or retransmit cell callers' locations for better accuracy, so call-takers often assume it's giving them bad information and rely on locations provided by callers instead.

"It appears that call-takers have been conditioned to not trust the location of cell phone callers," the audit says.

The vast majority of 911 calls in D.C. came from cell phones in 2020, according to the report.

Current protocol requires call-takers to ask for location information twice during a single call — an inefficient use of time that wouldn't be necessary if the location determining technology worked more reliably, the report says. Plus, callers often have no idea where they are, or are too distressed to convey accurate information.

To address the problem, OUC's Chief Information Officer told auditors that the agency is planning to adopt RapidSOS technology that is "like that used by Uber to locate riders and what Domino's Pizza utilizes in locating delivery sites."

Call-takers also took too long to answer emergency calls and notify responding units of emergencies, the audit says, lagging behind national standards set by the National Fire Protection Association and the National Emergency Number Association.

One reason dispatchers take too long to notify responding units of an emergency is they relay information verbally, using precious time spelling out the type of emergency and its location. The auditors recommend the agency adopt an automated dispatch system to cut lag time. OUC could reduce the time it takes for a call to be answered if it added more staff, the audit says.

The average time for OUC to answer a 911 call is 5.2 seconds, the audit says, and the average talk time is 111.2 seconds.

Longer police response times in wards 7 and 8, the audit says, stem from call volumes than can be more than twice that of other wards during warm weather. Unlike fire and emergency responders — which can tap a "nearly infinite" supply of emergency units from other parts of the region, the audit says — the Metropolitan Police Department is the only law enforcement agency authorized to respond to police calls in their jurisdiction. Lowering the time it takes for police to respond to high-priority calls, it says, would require adding more units to those wards when call volume is high.

The audit doesn't say how much money the D.C. government would need to spend to meet the report's recommendations, but D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said during a press call that the cost could be "significant." D.C. approved more than $55 million for OUC's budget in the 2022 fiscal year, a 2.2% increase over 2021.

In responses to the audit, OUC says it's working on fixing problems documented in the report. Interim Director Cleo Subido tells Patterson's office that the agency has "already made significant process" improving call answer times, and call takers are adopting more sophisticated location-finding tools.

"The deployment of the RapidSOS location determining technology... and continued engagement of call takers on the improved pinpointing of this technology has already paid dividends in call location accuracy," Subido wrote.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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