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'Thankless Job'

D.C. Council Panel Seeks More Details on 911 Errors

District of Columbia Council members demanded more transparency from Washington’s 911 center about its handling of call-taking and dispatching errors. The D.C. Council Judiciary and Public Safety Committee held a livestreamed oversight hearing Thursday about the Office of Unified Communications, which has received much scrutiny over incidents where incorrect addresses and miscommunication prompted dispatching delays. A former, longtime OUC employee claimed the office engages in unfair labor practices.

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We have a trust problem right now in the public with OUC … due in large part to a lack of transparency” about the office’s investigations after incidents occur, said Chair Brooke Pinto (D). “Not just a recognition that an error happened, but what was actually done about it.” Lack of trust “leads to poor public safety outcomes,” because people are less confident about calling 911, she said. “We need to figure out how to do more to ensure that the analysis and the conclusion of the investigation is communicated with the public. Not just for hand-wringing and finger-pointing, but so that the public can have confidence that there was sufficient follow-up action taken.”

We understand that there are issues, and we’re working really hard to fix those issues,” responded OUC Director Heather McGaffin, who received sharp criticisms from the committee during an October hearing (see 2310050062). But problems are “far outweighed by the positive outcomes that we have,” she said. “I don’t ever want there to be a trust issue between the public and the great work of the OUC employees.”

OUC reduced staff vacancies to 14, down from 57 when McGaffin arrived in June. The director said OUC expects it will fill six more positions soon. Also, the office has increased training on subjects including D.C. geography. OUC should soon see benefits from a PowerPhone call handling system that’s expected to be in place by April, McGaffin added. OUC spent $532,000 on implementing the PowerPhone system, which will cost $80,000 annually, said McGaffin. The system should give OUC leaders more insights into errors made during 911 calls, she said.

D.C. Councilmember Zachary Parker (D) complained that OUC hasn’t responded when he's requested information about specific incidents. The agency is legally obligated to respond when a councilmember makes a request, he stressed. Parker said he has concerns about PowerPhone. "I am worried it will not be the cure-all that the executive has claimed it to be."

Parker said he wonders if the District’s unified system is the best way to handle 911 calls. The Democrat earlier supported a bill transferring fire and emergency medical calls from OUC to dedicated triage lines staffed by D.C. Fire and Emergency Services (see 2312010063). McGaffin noted that New York City is considering moving to a unified system because of delays with another system. Also, Parker raised pay concerns after McGaffin said OUC’s average salaries are $49,000 for call takers and $70,000 for dispatchers. The councilmember said $49,000 a year is “teetering on poverty” and sounds especially low for such an important job.

Blame management, not call-takers, for D.C. 911 errors, said Debbie Knox of National Association of Government Employees Local R3-007. Two tenured union members recently left OUC due to mismanagement, she added.

"The 911 operator is the first line of defense,” said former OUC employee Sabrina Richardson. “This is a thankless job ... and Washington, D.C., still has not respected what we do.” An OUC employee for 25 years, Richardson testified that she resigned due to unfair labor practices, a lack of retirement benefits and too much overtime. She claimed that OUC pushes out tenured employees with six-figure salaries like herself, replacing each with multiple younger, lower-paid workers. Also, OUC forces staff to extend eight- and 12-hour shifts to 16 hours, she said. Richardson said she has post-traumatic stress disorder from a call where the caller died. Moreover, she alleged that her supervisor didn’t allow her to hit a button that would have sent help sooner. “My resignation has been a relief because the blood is no longer on my hands.”