Communication errors between 911 operators and D.C. firefighters and emergency workers have led to response delays and incorrect dispatches to dangerous incidents around the District, Lt. Daniel Dugan, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, told D.C. Council members Friday.
“There have been a number of serious incidents in both the dispatching of emergency equipment and a breakdown in communications between units and individuals operating on the fire ground,” Lt. Dugan said during a fire department oversight hearing before the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. “Enough incidents to cause my members to feel that their safety has been jeopardized.”
He listed three incidents in which communications breakdowns affected the response of emergency units.
The most recent incident stemmed from the derailment of a Green Line Metro train at the Mount Vernon Square station in Northwest last month. In that event, a 911 dispatcher incorrectly classified the case as a “medical local,” meaning only one fire engine and one ambulance initially were dispatched to the scene because minimal injuries were expected. However, about 20 people were injured.
“Metro incidents are enormous,” Lt. Dugan said. “They’re very difficult to mitigate.”
He also said the incident later was mistakenly characterized as a “plane crash” instead of a “train crash.”
In another incident, in January 2005, a dispatcher did not inform firefighters of an explosion at a building on Good Hope Road in Southeast, but sent out the call as a regular fire, Lt. Dugan said. A fire lieutenant at the scene then walked into an elevator shaft which had its doors blown off, breaking his back.
To improve information traded between dispatchers and responders, Lt. Dugan said, the union has been working with Janice Quintana, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s nominee to head the Office of the Unified Communications. Lt. Dugan said Ms. Quintana has been “very receptive” and a “breath of fresh air” compared with the center’s previous head, E. Michael Latessa.
The fire department also has faced the challenge of filling more than 200 job vacancies despite operating its recruiting academy at full capacity and experiencing payroll problems for 82 workers.
But Lt. Dugan said paramedics are reaching more patients in the District faster than at any other time in city history, with advanced life-support units reaching emergencies within the department’s stated goal of eight minutes 90 percent of the time.
Interim Fire Chief Brian Lee said the department is redeploying two rapid-response units to help provide patient care, and officials are instituting programs to study paramedic training and to better track data relating to the quality of care provided by workers.
The fire department also came under criticism last year following the death of journalist David E. Rosenbaum, who was assaulted and killed while walking outside his home in Northwest. An investigation by the city’s inspector general found that poor emergency care and a host of errors contributed to Mr. Rosenbaum’s death.
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and committee chairman, questioned Chief Lee on Friday about reports that a settlement had been reached in a lawsuit the Rosenbaum family filed against the District.
Chief Lee said he had not yet heard of a settlement.
“I don’t have the details of that particular settlement,” he said. “The executive branch has not briefed me, yet I’m sure I will be briefed.”