Help Isn’t On the Way: How a Lack of Oversight at OUC is Putting DC Residents at Risk
By the time Anthony Williams became Mayor in 1999, DC’s emergency call center had gotten so bad that his inaugural speech called for the bare minimum: a “9–1–1 that responds.” A 1998 Inspector General’s report had revealed that thousands of 911 calls in DC were going unanswered every month as underpaid dispatchers bailed on their shifts and left for better-paying jobs almost anywhere else.
This crisis led to creation of the Public Safety Communications Center and the end of the Metropolitan Police Department’s control of 911, which in turn led to creation of the Office of Unified Communications to manage 911 and 311. But DC’s Office of Unified Communications is facing yet another crisis — aided by a DC Council afraid of making real change.
A Troubled Agency, Ignored
When a Metro car filled with smoke at the L’Enfant Plaza station in 2015, passengers waited and waited for help and one woman died. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incident and found that problems at the Office of Unified Communications resulted in more than six minutes of the delay in helping passengers.
To fix these problems, the National Transportation Safety Board issued safety recommendations to the Office of Unified Communications, including calling for an audit to ensure the Office was meeting national safety standards. DC’s leadership, including the Director of the Office of Unified Communications, Karima Holmes, tucked that one away and didn’t follow through for more than five years.
Our challenges in keeping our communities safe couldn’t be more important. We cannot resort to broad slogans and meaningless numbers when we have so much work to do. Rigorous oversight and policy-making guided by data and driven by results should characterize every part of our legislature.
The problems at DC’s 911 center didn’t go away though.
Almost five years later, in 2019, locked doors and illegal slum conditions in a house on Kennedy Street, NW, in my community led to the death of two people. DC’s 911 center delayed a response to the fire by more than four minutes when they didn’t dispatch the fire department to aid a police officer who was desperately trying to break down locked doors. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, including mine, raised alarms and called for the DC government to look into the role of the Office of Unified Communications in the delay. But when DC investigated the incident, the Office of Unified Communications’ failure to dispatch the appropriate help promptly wasn’t part of the report.
Silence from the DC Council
Working across neighborhood boundaries, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions like mine were the first to demand that the DC government fulfill the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation for a comprehensive audit. We were fortunate that the DC Auditor listened. Director Holmes resigned as the audit started and went to work for ShotSpotter, a DC government contractor.
The audit’s findings were deeply troubling. Not only does the Office of Unified Communications fall short of national standards, it faces systemic issues. These include “a lack of adequate oversight of call-taking and dispatch operations” and equity concerns in dispatch of emergency calls, with dispatch in Wards 7 and 8 taking 20% longer than in other neighborhoods.
While the Office of Unified Communications saw some improvement and increased transparency under an interim Director, it is again moving backwards. Mayor Bowser has spun the revolving door and brought back Karima Holmes as Interim Director. Meanwhile, the current Council Chair has been silent while communities, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and families members of victims are outraged.
911 Calls: More Critical Than Ever
Our emergency call center is critical to ensuring the safety of DC’s residents. We’re currently looking at spending millions of dollars for additional police officers because of a reported 90 second increase in response times to calls — all without the data to connect those delays to the number of officers. We know, on the other hand, that real engagement and reforms at the Office of Unified Communications would avoid delays that have stretched into minutes — including a recent incident in which the Office of Unified Communications defended a thirty-minute delay response that sent help to the wrong location and resulted in a mentally ill man’s death.
We need data-driven solutions for public safety. That’s why my DC Council Accountability Plan calls for increased use of the Auditor’s office, including engaging with the results of audits and findings. To let the recommendations of an outside, expert body like the National Transportation Safety Board go ignored for more than five years is malpractice — and not solely by the executive. The DC Council can and should direct more of the Auditor’s work, and it shouldn’t take Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners doing oversight to finally advance those recommendations.
We also need to help the Office of Unified Communications evolve into the next generation of dispatching. Already, Office of Unified Communications dispatchers are making critical decisions to ensure smart use of resources. Mental health services or police? Nurse line with a taxi or an ambulance for transport? Failing to focus on the critical link between the public and emergency services means increased costs to our city as we use the highest level of service for more calls and more risk to our citizens if communities don’t get the care they need in a timely manner.
Here’s what we need:
- We should have hearings and full DC Council votes on every agency Director, including Directors of critical life-saving agencies like the Office of Unified Communications and the District Department of Transportation.
- Given documented difficulties hiring staff at the Office of Unified Communications, the Office of the Inspector General should re-examine their seminal 1998 report, including the section on hiring and compensation for emergency dispatchers to ensure DC is competitive in wages and benefits.
- The DC Auditor’s Office should continue their planned follow-up audit of the Office of Unified Communications, as well as audit the Office of Unified Communications’ 311 system to ensure correct case categorization, realistic service timelines, and call completion, as my Advisory Neighborhood Commission recommended in 2020. And the DC Council should hold hearings on and consider legislation related to the Auditor’s findings and recommendations.
- I will oppose revolving door nominees — who leave government to then work for a contractor that they oversee and then return to government — and explore longer cooling-off periods for high-level agency staff, like Directors, much like I proposed for Councilmembers and staff in my DC Council Accountability Plan.
Our challenges in keeping our communities safe couldn’t be more important. We cannot resort to broad slogans and meaningless numbers when we have so much work to do. Rigorous oversight and policy-making guided by data and driven by results should characterize every part of our legislature. Systemic analysis allows us to find key weak points — like the Office of Unified Communications or the Department of Forensic Sciences — to make our system of care and justice work better for every DC resident.