Hearing set to address 911 call center issues in DC

A damaging report released by the D.C. Auditor last week shows more shortcomings with DC’s 911 call center. 

Now, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen is planning a Sept. 28 roundtable where he plans to address Office of Unified Communications (OUC) issues.

In some cases, he plans to review them call-by-call. Allen told FOX 5 that he wants to hear an action plan on how the OUC is going to address certain problems plaguing the city’s 911 call center.

FOX 5’s David Kaplan reported on Friday that the found that only 1 out of 31 recommendations made by the D.C. Auditor last Fall on how OUC could improve some of its shortcomings, had been carried out. 

D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson found minimal progress to some of OUC’s repeat issues.

Patterson shared that: "One of the findings in what we’re releasing [last Friday] is that a commitment that was made by the Bowser Administration to that October audit, was that they would set up a way of documenting the accountability from after action reports and corrective actions that were taken. The agency would follow up and create a database to record those and to make that information available. That’s another one of the recommendations from October that now has a September target date, almost a full year later."

In response to the Friday report, the acting OUC Director Karima Holmes told David Kaplan, "I am pleased to say that we have made continued strides since my return, which was shortly before the follow-up assessment concluded, and I look forward to meeting with the audit team later this month to share my team's progress."

FOX 5 has reported on a number of emergencies that have reportedly been handled questionably in the 911 call center. Some of those incident have resulted in deaths.

Dave Statter, the public safety advocate who has been flagging various OUC call-taker or dispatch mistakes connected to deaths, tells FOX 5 he’s tracked nine of these types of issues in the last three years. Two of the most recent included an infant and a three-month-old dying.

"It’s very simple. I want to see 911 improve," Statter said Monday.

RELATED: Newborn dies; DC 911 dispatcher sends crew to wrong address

"The Mayor and I see this differently. I see nine deaths over three years as tragic, as important, as something that should be looked at carefully and something that should be addressed," he added. "The problem is that these mistakes keep re-occurring and no one seems to be addressing the problems. One of the things that keeps coming up is that they – the dispatchers don’t look at the updated notes. We saw that in a couple of the deaths this year. And for some reason, that’s not being addressed with D.C. 911."

"I do know Karima Holmes brings a level of experience that’s un-paralleled," said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser when asked about some of the issues Statter has raised. 

She also added that "OUC gets thousands upon thousands of calls, all with people calling upon various stages of distress. If you want to pick out or cherry-pick one or two calls, you can do that."

"I’m more than disappointed with the path that has been taken. And my hope – true hope – is that the city council will stand up and do what’s right because change needs to come to that department," said Billie Shepperd, whose daughter died in 2020.

It was only after a 2020 Freedom of Information Act request released a heart-breaking 911 call that OUC apologized for a call taker error in that emergency. 

The 911 call revealed Billie Shepperd’s 13-year-old granddaughter did tell the call-taker the correct address. However, the dispatcher sent crews to the wrong quadrant, leaving a distraught 13-year-old to perform CPR on her mother for over 20 minutes. Sheila Shepperd, 59, went into cardiac arrested and died after.

With so many circumstances involved in these calls, no one can definitely say a mistake in the call-taking process definitively lead to a death. However, Shepperd says the city admitting their mistake, providing transparency and reaching out to the family goes a long way.

To this day, Shepperd tells FOX 5 no one from the city has reached out to apologize or offer their condolences. She did tell FOX 5 that she spoke with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at a summer event, only after sharing her story with the mayor’s staff.

"I have not cherry-picked my daughter’s situation. There have been too many situations, to me, that have happened in this city under the leadership of Ms. Holmes and perhaps others," Shepperd said.

Acting Director Karima Holmes was first nominated in 2016. She left OUC after Sheila Shepperd’s death. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her return in late February.

The council will have to hold another confirmation hearing for Holmes who will have to be confirmed with a majority.

"When the mayor decided to bring that nominee back, I said I would be open. I wanted to give that nominee – give Ms. Holmes a fair chance," Councilmember Allen said. "I have not been convinced. When I talked to my colleagues they have the same response and I think when we talk to the public, they have the same response. So, this is an agency that is troubled. This is an agency we depend on, and I have not seen that best foot forward. I haven’t seen the mayor really lay out what that plan looks like to really get our confidence back, so we’re not there yet." 

The D.C. Auditor also claimed in a recent interview that the mayor was in violation of D.C. code when it comes to a Confirmation Act. She described this on "The Politics Hour" with Kojo Nnamdi" that a city law requires a nomination within 180 days of placing someone in an active status — otherwise that person is not supposed to be paid. Patterson noted that did not happen.

The Mayor’s Office tells FOX 5 Mayor Bowser did submit the nomination in time but claims the council did not see it since they're still out on break until Friday.

FOX 5 has not been able to speak directly with the OUC acting director after many of these incidents or after the report was released last Friday.