- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is investigating recent incidents in which emergency dispatchers have sent firetrucks and ambulances to wrong addresses or have provided faulty information.

One incident ended with the death of a patient, but it is not known what role the dispatching error played in that situation. The errors have delayed the delivery of emergency services around the city and have prompted scrutiny of the District’s 911 communications center.

According to fire department records obtained by The Washington Times:

• On Feb. 10, a medic unit responded to a 911 call about trouble breathing at the Washington Nursing Facility in Southeast. The unit arrived at 5:47 p.m. and found a patient in his 50s going into cardiac arrest.

Medics requested an engine company as backup at 6 p.m., and the department’s computer-assisted dispatch system recommended a unit at 6:01 p.m. But dispatchers did not send the unit until 6:06 p.m. — a five-minute delay. The patient died, and it is not known what role the delay played in his death.

• On Feb. 20, firefighters were dispatched to the 1500 block of R Street NW at 5:58 a.m. for reports of a house fire. Firefighters arrived two minutes later and began unloading hoses and equipment.

When no signs of an emergency were noted, the battalion chief called communications and discovered that his crew should have been dispatched to the 1500 block of 12th Street NW, about a mile away. The crew packed their gear and arrived at the correct address at 6:09 a.m. — 11 minutes after the call had been first dispatched.

Two residents were rescued, and no one was seriously injured.

• On Feb. 21, dispatchers sent a rescue crew to the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW at 10:35 a.m. to rescue persons trapped in an elevator.

When crews arrived at 10:42 a.m. and found nothing, dispatchers checked the address and found that the correct location was the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Another crew was dispatched at 10:42 a.m. and arrived at the correct address at 10:51 a.m.

A month before those dispatching errors occurred, dispatchers had failed to tell fire crews responding to a Jan. 11 apartment building fire in the 2300 block of Good Hope Road SE that there had been an explosion from a buildup of natural gas.

A 2-year-old girl died in that fire. Her 30-year-old mother was critically injured, and a firefighter was hurt when he fell 30 feet down an elevator shaft.

Fire department spokesman Alan Etter said Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson has ordered an investigation into the incidents.

“Obviously, the fire department is very concerned about these recent incidents,” Mr. Etter said. “We believe they are isolated.”

E. Michael Latessa, director of the Office of Unified Communications, which runs the call center, said his agency has looked into the incidents and has concluded that “the only thing you can really attribute them to is human error.”

“We’ve addressed these things with training, when training was appropriate,” Mr. Latessa said. “We’ve addressed these things with discipline, when discipline was appropriate.”

According to National Fire Protection Association guidelines, emergency calls should be processed within one minute, but there is no industry standard for processing calls for backup. Getting to a fire within six minutes is crucial because fires can double in size every 30 seconds, according to the NFPA.

Ed Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said the dispatching errors were “isolated” but troubling.

“I am greatly concerned when we don’t handle a call properly,” he said. “I think our overall error rate is very low but still a cause for concern.”

Before October, dispatchers were under police jurisdiction. Since then, the 911 center has been run by the newly created city agency. The majority of employees are civilian workers formerly in the employment of the Metropolitan Police Department and are represented by the National Association of Government Employees.

Investigations into a January 2003 fatal fire in Dupont Circle highlighted staffing shortages, long wait times and numerous dropped calls in the 911 system. Two civilians and five police officers working at the center were fired.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams hired Howard A. Baker in August 2003 to head the newly formed city agency, only to see Mr. Baker resign just 80 days later, after reports surfaced that he had made racially insensitive jokes in front of staff members.

Mr. Latessa was hired in January 2004 at a salary of $111,000, but has not yet been confirmed by the D.C. Council.

The agency is made up of civilian call takers that previously worked for the Metropolitan Police Department, and the Fire and EMS Department. In the past, police call takers answered 911 calls and then transferred fire and medical calls to fire department call takers.

One of the goals of the agency is to train all call takers to handle police and fire calls. A $116 million state-of-the-art communications center is under construction on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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