DC firefighters encounter delays in requests for additional units in 2 recent fires

- In the last two weeks, commanders at the scene of two major fires in the District have asked for extra crews to help. However, they did not arrive as fast as it should have due to issues with 911 computers. In one case, it took ten minutes for the 911 center to dispatch support staff. Now, the firefighters' union is pointing fingers at the city’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC).

Last month, firefighters were battling an apartment building blaze on Peabody Street in Northwest D.C. for well over two hours when the commander on scene asked for a third alarm. Here is what was heard on D.C. Fire radio transmission.

Commander: "Command 4 to communications.”

Dispatcher: “Come in Command 4.”

Commander: “Go ahead and sound the third alarm. Have them stage at Georgia and Peabody.”

But three minutes later when the commander doesn't hear the call go out over the radio, this is the response he gets from the dispatcher.

Dispatcher: “Okay sir. We’re, umm, getting it now.”

Six minutes after the commander asked for the help, it is finally sent. It is a delay the firefighters’ union said is unacceptable.

However, seven days later, it happened again during a major fire on U Street. The commander asks for more help as the fire begins to spread.

Commander: "Command 6 to communications.”

Dispatcher: “Come in Command 6.”

Commander: “Can I get a list of my second alarm companies?”

Dispatcher: “We are having computer problems. We are not able to get our second alarm units out there. It is not coming up on the board.”

The firefighters’ union said as the fire spread, ten minutes went by before the units were even dispatched.

"It's been an issue that this union has brought to both the fire department and OUC on several occasions and we seem to still be having significant problems with it,” said Dabney Hudson, president of the District of Columbia Firefighters Association. “Obviously this incident the other night highlights it. It is one of the only times we have actually had somebody admit that they have had an issue, a technical issue, that caused a delay in providing service.”

Hudson said when a commander calls for a second or a third alarm, it should be sounded immediately.

"It’s a push of a button in a CAD (computer-aided dispatch), which should be the push of a button to put the assignment together and then subsequently dispatch it,” said Hudson. “I would think 30 to 45 seconds from the time it was asked for to the time it was dispatched would be within industry standards.”

In the fire on Peabody Street, one man was killed, but there is no indication the delay in sounding a third alarm had anything to do with his death. The cause of the fire is undetermined at this point.

No one was hurt in the fire on U Street, but there was significant property damage. 

The Office of Unified Communications said in a statement to FOX 5:

The Office of Unified Communications continues to investigate two recent incidents. The first involves a multi-alarm fire on Peabody Street, NW on June 24th. During this event, when the incident commander requested additional resources, the system seemed to “freeze”, which led to a delay in deploying the resources. We are working with our system vendor and with our partners in the Fire & EMS Department to determine the cause of the problem, gain a full understanding of what happened, and develop solutions to prevent it from happening in the future. We have been engaged in testing and development aimed at solving this issue, which has not reoccurred since that time.

In addition, we are investigating a multi-alarm fire which occurred on U St., NW just after midnight on July 1st. In this case, we believe a mistake made by one of our operators led to a delay in dispatching a requested 2nd alarm on the incident. The circumstances of this incident remain under investigation.

The Office of Unified Communications is committed to serving those in need of emergency services in our community quickly and efficiently. OUC continues to make improvements in technology and training in order to keep that commitment.

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