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DC Must Fix 911

Councilmember Nadeau issued the following statement today as the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held an oversight hearing with the Office of Unified Communications, which operates the city’s emergency 911 dispatch center.

When District residents need help in life-threatening situations, there’s an expectation that help will be swift and accurate. We’ve heard stories of dispatchers sending 911 help to the wrong address. We’ve heard stories of dispatchers sending basic non-threatening life support services to people who are in life-threatening situations—and sometimes—it’s too late. We’ve also heard stories of people being put on hold for up to 5 minutes in emergent situations.

Just weeks ago, a victim was shot outside a woman’s apartment in Southeast. She did what any reasonable person would do in a similar situation: call 911. What she got was an automated message saying, “Hello this is D.C. 911 please do not hang up.” It kept repeating that statement over and over for 90 seconds.

The lack of transparency continues even during performance oversight when we’re supposed to be getting answers to all the unknowns. Question 68 from the prehearing responses asks about the family of Bernard Baker Jr. who called 911 to report a cardiac arrest in April 2023. Their call was placed on hold for several minutes and they didn’t receive an ambulance for at least 11 minutes. OUC’s alarming written response is, “Information about this incident is not available to the public at this time.” The agency is gatekeeping information from the public without stating a legal reason for withholding disclosure, adding to the public’s frustration and continuously eroding trust in the agency.

This is unacceptable. The Executive cannot continue to downplay the botched response to life-threatening emergencies. District residents deserve better.

As both a Councilmember and a parent of a child with life-threatening allergies, I understand the gravity of ensuring effective emergency response. Every second counts in a crisis, and the inability to rely on our 911 dispatch center to send emergency services is simply unacceptable. If I can’t know with certainty that I can get help for my baby when I call 911, then our government has failed.

I question whether today’s oversight hearing will lead to any changes in this agency. This is why I introduced legislation in November to restructure the 911 center and have all fire and emergency medical services calls transferred to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. I look forward to a hearing on that bill before this committee.

But even if passed, that won’t be enough. It’s clear that structural issues plague OUC, leading to a lack of accountability and oversight. I will continue to collaborate with my colleagues to press OUC for real and significant improvements as quickly as possible.

Related

Councilmember Nadeau sent the following letter to the City Administrator and the Director of the Office of Unified Communications on Tuesday to express her deep concern over the 911 dispatch center's ongoing failure to dispatch assistance where it is needed. She called the failures "alarming and unacceptable."
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