- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

D.C. government officials created the Office of Unified Communications in 2004 in part to address staffing and quality-control problems that have plagued the city’s 911 system for years. But a year later, the agency is struggling with its own problems of low morale, dispatcher mistakes and complaints from the rescue workers.

The latest incident occurred last week, when dispatchers sent police to the wrong quadrant of the city after a woman called 911 to report that she had been beaten and robbed near a Metro station in Northwest.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, an at-large Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee that oversees the agency, said the incident is serious and needs to be investigated. However, he does not think the incident is a sign of chronic problems at the call center.

“My sense is that we have a pretty good 911 system,” he said.

Mr. Mendelson said labor-management conflicts within the agency could be affecting performance. But he thinks additional training will help fix the mistakes.

“The goal is that we should never have to read about this in [the] paper,” he said.

The Washington Times reported earlier this year that the fire department was investigating a series of instances in which dispatchers gave rescue workers incorrect or incomplete information.

Among the most serious incidents was a Jan. 11 incident in which a firefighter responding to an apartment-building fire in the 2300 block of Good Hope Road Southeast broke his back after falling 30 feet down an elevator shaft. Dispatchers had failed to tell fire crews there had been an explosion from a buildup of natural gas. A 2-year-old girl died in the fire, and her 30-year-old mother was critically injured.

“The fire department depends on communications for a critical function,” said Alan Etter, fire department spokesman. “The more information we can get on the front end, the better the outcome, not only for the victim but for thefirst responders.”

Before October 2004, dispatchers were under police jurisdiction. Since then, the new agency has run the 911 center. The majority of employees who handle the roughly 1 million calls for service each year are civilian workers who formerly worked for the Metropolitan Police Department or the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Under the old system, all 911 calls went to the police department call takers, who then transferred fire and medical calls to fire department call takers.

Michael Patterson, vice president of the National Association of Government Employees local R3-05, which represents the call takers, said low morale is affecting performance.

He said that agency managers are disrespectful and unfair to employees and that some longtime employees have quit.

“The agency is in turmoil right now,” he said.

A fatal fire in January 2003 in Dupont Circle highlighted the system’s staffing shortages, long wait times and numerous dropped calls.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, hired Howard A. Baker in August 2003 to head the agency, but he resign just 80 days later, after reports surfaced that he had made racially insensitive jokes in front of staff members.

Mr. Williams then hired E. Michael Latessa in January 2004 at a salary of $111,000. He remains the agency’s interim director.

One goal at the agency is to train call takers to handle police and fire calls. A $116 million communications center is under construction on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital. It is expected to be operational by spring 2006. The agency also handles 311 nonemergency calls and calls to the mayor’s customer service hot line at 202/727-1000.

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