- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

The head of the District’s 911 emergency call center said yesterday that the agency is exceeding its performance goals and blamed most of the complaints it receives on caller error.

Testifying before the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary, E. Michael Latessa, interim director of the Office of Unified Communications, said the agency answered 859,509 emergency 911 calls in fiscal 2005 and received 90 complaints.

Many of the complaints came from the D.C. fire department and were about dispatchers transmitting incorrect addresses, he said. Internal investigations found that 16 calls were dispatched erroneously. One other call is being investigated.

Mr. Latessa shielded much of the blame for the agency.

“More often than not, unfortunately, it’s the fault of the caller,” he said.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and committee chairman, asked Mr. Latessa for a list of every complaint filed against the agency and their dispositions.

The Washington Times has reported several incidents in which emergency workers were given incorrect or incomplete information.

On Oct. 17, The Times reported that a woman who was beaten and robbed near a Northwest Metro station said a dispatcher told her to lure the attacker toward a street where police would be waiting. However, the dispatcher sent officers to the wrong quadrant of the city.

The Times reported yesterday that the fire department is investigating four cases dating back to Oct. 23 in which emergency workers have been given incorrect or incomplete information, including an incident Tuesday in which a dispatch error might have contributed to a fatality in a house fire.

It is not clear whether the cases were among those Mr. Latessa cited.

The hearing focused on a wide range of performance issues, including the troubled relations between labor and management.

He testified yesterday that the center answered calls within five seconds 95 percent of the time, with fewer than 3 percent of calls being abandoned.

About two dozen call takers and dispatchers attended the hearing. Seven testified that management provides inadequate training and quality control and enforces selective discipline. They said faulty equipment, radio-system distortions and bleeding between radio channels have contributed to dispatcher errors.

They also said the change from eight- to 12-hour shifts has hurt dispatcher performance.

Mr. Latessa said complaints were filed by a small group of people.

However, Mr. Mendelson told Mr. Latessa that the level of dissent was unusual.

“We have 17 agencies under the Committee on the Judiciary, and there are some pretty big ones, much greater than your agency in terms of number of people,” he said. “And in most of the agencies, we don’t get this much complaint from the rank and file. So there’s something else going on.”

One call taker said she was instructed not to challenge 911 callers if they give one address but her computer shows another.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of that,” Mr. Latessa responded. “No one has issued any memorandum or bulletin to that effect.”

Mr. Latessa said many of the technology problems will be resolved this spring when the agency moves into a new communications facility on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

He said some radio interference is unavoidable, but conditions will improve with Federal Communications Commission changes that will set aside radio frequency for public safety.

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