- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

The D.C. fire department is investigating whether a dispatcher error contributed to the death of a disabled Northeast man in a house fire late Tuesday.

The incident was the latest in a series of errors made by the year-old city agency that handles 911 calls.

The 73-year-old man, whose name has not been released, was on the upper floor of his home in the 1900 block of Lawrence Street NE when the fire started shortly before midnight.

According to fire department records, a caller told a 911 operator that there was fire coming from an air-conditioning unit in the house. Such a description should mandate the dispatching of a box alarm, which consists of five engine companies, two ladder trucks, a heavy-duty rescue squad and a battalion chief.

But a dispatcher at the Office of Unified Communications dispatched the call as a short circuit, sending only a fire truck and a ladder truck.

The lack of the additional personnel can be critical because each crew has a specific assignment during a fire. A heavy-duty rescue crew, which was not initially dispatched, is ordinarily sent into a burning building to search for victims.

D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the man was found unconscious on the second floor of the house. He was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. The cause of the fire was determined to be improperly discarded smoking materials.

E. Michael Latessa, the director of the Office of Unified Communications, would not discuss specifics of the call, saying that it was “under investigation.”

Mr. Etter said the fire department is taking the incident “very seriously.”

“We have some very real concerns about what’s going on up there,” Mr. Etter said yesterday, referring to the possible dispatcher errors. He also said there was no way to tell whether the man’s life could have been saved if the call had been dispatched properly.

The Washington Times reported Nov. 5 that dispatchers sent a paramedic crew from more than 12 miles away to the scene of a fatal bicycle accident on Nov. 3 when a paramedic crew was in quarters less than two miles away.

Mr. Etter said the department has also asked the communications agency for information about a series of other calls in which dispatching errors may have been a factor.

On Oct. 23, shortly after 8 p.m., a man was stabbed in the 4500 block of Benning Road SE. The dispatcher sent the ambulance to the 4500 block of Benning Road NE, a few blocks away.

At 1 p.m. that same day, dispatchers sent firefighters responding to a traffic accident to 19th and C streets SE. The actual location of the accident was 19th and C streets NE, a little more than half a mile away.

On Oct. 31, a call for smoke coming from a basement clothes dryer in the 500 block of Decatur Street NW was mistakenly dispatched as a short circuit. Firefighters arriving on the scene saw heavy smoke and called for a larger response.

Mr. Etter said the cases remain under investigation.

“The requests for the materials have been made but they have not yet been received,” Mr. Etter said. “We don’t know why.”

Mr. Latessa said he would need to get more information about the requests before responding.

The fire department has concluded that dispatcher error was responsible for a delayed response to an Oct. 27 call for chest pains. About 8 p.m., an ambulance was dispatched to the 1100 block of Constitution Avenue NW. The actual address was the Mayflower Hotel, in the 1100 block of Connecticut Avenue NW, a little more than three miles away.

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