OUC publicly apologizes five months after botched 911 call ends in death

The Office of Unified Communications publically apologized to a D.C. mother on Tuesday, some five months after a D.C. dispatcher sent crews to the wrong address, delaying the 9-1-1 response time to a cardiac arrest emergency. Sheila Shepperd, 59, died in a hospital afterward, according to her family.

READ MORE: DC family wants transparency after botched 911 call results in death

Shepperd’s mother, Billie Shepperd, told FOX 5 in the several months since her daughter’s June death, no one from the city ever contacted them to confirm the dispatch error. The older Shepperd only received confirmation after an industry outlet requested the recording of the 9-1-1 call via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The call was obtained by the industry publication, “Communications Daily,” and shared publically last week.  

In the call, you hear an emotional, but brave, 13-year-old call 9-1-1 after her mother collapses. She clearly gives her correct Oglethorpe St. Northeast D.C. address twice in the beginning of the call. You can also hear her ask how long until help arrives and following instructions to begin CPR on her mother while she desperately waits. Officials confirm crews had been sent to the same street in Northwest D.C. Nearly 21 minutes into the call is when first responders can be heard arriving.

OUC Director Karima Holmes said in a statement emailed to FOX 5 on Tuesday:

“I would like to offer my most sincere apology to the family for our call-taker error. Their experience with our 911 system at the point of their most urgent need was not in keeping with our commitment to callers and District residents.  Last summer after this incident, we conducted a full investigation of this case and the handling of this call did not meet our performance standard. Broader efforts are now underway to address call-taker errors including a committed partnership with DC Fire and EMS in which we are collectively working to ensure that every 911 caller receives the help they need in the most efficient and timely manner possible.”

It was not immediately clear whether the family of Sheila Shepperd was actually contacted by city leaders.  

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“Like has been stated by OUC’s director, we want to give our condolences to the families and our apologies to the family,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice in an exclusive interview with FOX 5 on Tuesday.

When asked if his office is recommending any change to how the mistakes or OUC errors are publically reported, Dr. Mitchell answered, “At this time, I’m not making any change in policy as it stands now. We want to be as transparent as possible. And I’ll work with the director and the leadership to see how we best communicate our errors to community…”

Dr. Mitchel gave the example of his interviewing with FOX 5 as part of that effort to promote transparency.

Mistakes happen.

Dr. Mitchell noted the mistakes are not as many as the call volume but also acknowledged one is too many. In the Tuesday interview with FOX 5, the deputy mayor said as of May, OUC has only dealt with 11 errors out of nearly 470,000 calls, with three being address issues due to call-taker error.

“Any one of those issues can be life-threatening so we need a zero-sum. But it puts it into prospective how often these errors happen. They don’t often happen, but when they do we take them very seriously,” said Dr. Mitchell.

Dave Statter, the public safety advocate who first flagged the Oglethorpe St. NE mistake, has been keeping tabs on OUC issues responding to various emergencies throughout the city. Statter previously charged OUC of under-reporting the number of call issues in the District.

READ MORE: DC 911 has sent fire & EMS to wrong addresses more this year than the last 5 years combined

FOX 5 has also reported on a number of OUC response call issues in the past. This includes both cardiac arrest call delays, the Kennedy St. fatal fire and a delayed Metro collision response.

In previous questions to those previous incidents, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed confidence in the OUC Director Karima Holmes and replied that she would get back to reporters asking for details on different incidents. This includes on Monday when FOX 5 and at least one other outlet asked Mayor Bowser about the Oglethorpe St. NE mistake.

“Certainly it’s not okay if any of our systems failed,” said Mayor Bowser to FOX 5 on Monday, “and we always thoroughly investigate any problem and make any effort to fix it and to fix it immediately.”

“I’m not sure. I may have,” said the Mayor, when asked if she had listened to the 9-1-1 audio recording by another reporter. The Mayor said she would have a response at another time, when further asked about any internal investigation into the matter or OUC public reporting of these call issues.

Councilmember Charles Allen first confirmed for FOX 5 last Saturday that the call-taker had been reprimanded in the Oglethorpe NE incident. He also said there was retraining for those involved.

When asked why he had not reached out to Sheila Shepperd’s family as the Chair of the D.C. Council Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, he responded:

“This was subject of a hearing. So we had a public hearing. There certainly was public discourse. I’ve been critical of OUC when there’ve been mistakes and also work to support them when they make steps to improve. That’s part of the job of oversight."

“I think that we want to make sure that follow up takes place,” Allen added, “when we think about gun violence, for example, we have the type of follow up from the deputy mayor's office that works to work with victims and survivors of gun violence to go in and try to find out what support is necessary. What help that family needs to do that frequently and should happen here so we'll be following up.”

Sheila Shepperd’s mother told FOX 5's Stephanie Ramirez Tuesday night that she didn’t know if this was a public apology. She says she still has not heard from city leaders.

Allen said the audit currently being done on D.C.’s OUC will be made available to the public.

That audit is not expected to be completed until May 2021.