Fire and EMS teams at the site of an emergency. DMV residents worry about recent cases of mishandled 911 calls.

Fire and EMS teams at the site of an emergency. DMV residents worry about recent cases of mishandled 911 calls.

Recent incidents have residents worried about emergency services in the DMV.

A case involving a water rescue and confusion between Loudoun County and Montgomery County dispatchers may have led to the tragic death of a young teen. In D.C., first responders were sent to the wrong location in response to a maritime distress signal. By the time they arrived at the right place, those onboard had drowned. This case led the city to consider opening an investigation into problems with emergency services.

In a world with smartphones that track every movement, why is it an emergency dispatcher can’t locate your precise location?

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Cheryl Kagan Member (D-District 17), Maryland Senate; @CherylKagan
  • Dave Statter Former WUSA 9 reporter, now runs Statter911, a fire and EMS news site; @STATter911
  • Karima Holmes Director, Office of Unified Communications, District of Columbia


  • 12:00:04

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, we're looking back at the publication of the fabricated “Jimmy's World” story in The Washington Post and the lasting effect it had on our region. But first, residents and local authorities alike have long been critical of 911 response services, but a few recently mishandled 911 calls have residents particularly worried and asking: Why is it that our smart phones can track our every move, but an emergency dispatcher can't seem to locate us?

  • 12:00:32

    KOJO NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join this conversation. Did you recently have an emergency that involved calling 911? How was your experience with emergency services? We'd like to hear from you. Joining me now is Cheryl Kagan. She's a Maryland State Senator, representing Montgomery County. Senator Kagan, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:51

    CHERYL KAGANHey, Kojo. Good to be back on.

  • 12:00:53

    NNAMDII'd like to start by asking you about a case from earlier this summer, in which 911 calls for a water rescue were bouncing between two jurisdictions, yours, Montgomery County and Loudoun County. A lot went wrong that day, and ultimately ended with the death of a young teen, Fitz Thomas. What happened?

  • 12:01:12

    KAGANIt was such a tragedy. The jurisdictional boundaries is one of the real challenges as we seek to upgrade and the rest of the country to next generation 911. I've been working on these issues for six years, since I've had three people die in my district. And the question is, when we're dealing across state lines with federal institutions or across even county lines, who's responsible and how should they be handled? It takes money, training and a lot more details. There is a lot to have been learned by Fitz Thomas's tragic death. And I hope it will never happen again.

  • 12:01:52

    NNAMDIAfter that incident, Loudoun County, with input from Montgomery County, put out a 77-page report, which included a number of recommendations. And yesterday, Loudoun County announced it's implementing some of those changes to 911 procedures. Maryland and Montgomery County have yet to respond. Where do things stand on the Maryland side?

  • 12:02:12

    KAGANSo, Montgomery County is definitely working on this. There was just a report from our 911 center acting director to the county executive, the county council. And then, statewide, we are looking for lessons learned from this tragedy and from the others, the too many others. It's unfortunately not as simple as flicking a switch and getting things updated. People often ask me, "How come the pizza guy can find me, but the ambulance can't?" And it's really about using 52-year-old technology. Think about it as using a rotary phone when others are using smartphones. We've got to update our systems. It takes money. It takes training and it takes collaboration across jurisdictions.

  • 12:02:58

    NNAMDIYou've been working on the legislative side to modernize the -- what you just described, the decades old 911 system that you're operating on. Tell us about next generation 911 and some of the challenges with upgrading the current system.

  • 12:03:12

    KAGANThanks for asking. So, I've been sharing the statewide commission. We're already passed nine laws, but there is more to do. We started at a deficit with funding, because we had only about 37 percent, on average, of 911 costs covered by the one-dollar fee that people had been paying for many, many years. So, we adjusted the funding structure to be more equitable that will help us do our upgrade. But we're talking about hardware, software, cyber security. Some people think it's cute, or whether it's a teenager who's bored or whether it's a foreign actor to hack into our 911 system, which can paralyze a 911 center or shut it down. We are now at the cutting edge, nationally. But there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by Fitz Thomas's death.

  • 12:04:08

    NNAMDIJoining me now is Dave Statter. Dave Statter is a former WUSA 9 reporter, now runs Statter911, a fire and EMS news site. Dave, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:19

    DAVE STATTERIt's good to talk to you again, Kojo.

  • 12:04:21

    NNAMDIDave your reporting cites human error more often than technological mistakes. Tell us more about this human and technology divide.

  • 12:04:29

    STATTERI think the investment in technology is phenomenal, and I applaud Cheryl Kagan for her work in this area. But we have to also think about the people that report from Loudoun County about the Montgomery Loudoun incident and the tragic death of this young man. Also, it highlighted some other things as did the great Washington Post article on this. And that's investing on the people. There is a lot of times we train 911 operators -- not just here, but all across the country -- to read what's on the screen and to react to very rigid protocols, rather than use critical thinking and active listening skills to make good decisions and paying really close attention to what the people are telling you. And I think there was some cues missed in that report. And we see it all over the country. It's not just here.

  • 12:05:18

    NNAMDIHow do incidents that you've seen in D.C. compare to those in Maryland and Virginia, both in terms of number of incidents and how they're handled?

  • 12:05:26

    STATTERI haven't focused that much on Loudoun. There has been an increase of some incidents in Montgomery County that disturbed me. Sending a house fire to the wrong address, some delays in dispatching Metro calls. But D.C.'s problems are very similar as any 911 center. But they seem to be on steroids. And one of the big differences is the lack of transparency in D.C. At least here, we were getting some answers very quickly in what went wrong. I've documented 38 bad addresses. It doesn't mean it was all the mistake of 911 call takers, who do a great job.

  • 12:05:55

    STATTERBut there's 38 since December that have gone to a bad address for D.C. Fire and EMS, which also talks about the paperwork that they submitted to the D.C. Council. They said that there were only five bad addresses -- I'm sorry, four bad addresses for fire, EMS and police last year. So, something is not right. There's a lack of transparency and accountability in D.C. And that's what I've been really working hard at trying to change.

  • 12:06:19

    NNAMDIIn D.C. last month, Dave, first responders were sent to the wrong marina in response to a maritime distress signal. The case resulted in a triple drowning. Briefly tell us about this water rescue assignment in D.C. and what went wrong.

  • 12:06:34

    STATTERIt's an interesting case, and it’s part of the overall problem. I'm not sure it's the worst case we've seen there. But what happened was there was a triple drowning. The fireboat for D.C. got there first, and they said they needed land units. They asked those land units to go to the marina that's at Bolling Air Force Base, and instead, the dispatcher sent them to a marina that's five miles upriver on the Anacostia, on the other bank, and made a mistake clearly by the 911 dispatcher. And it was corrected quickly by D.C. Fire and EMS.

  • 12:07:03

    STATTERBut that's just one of 38 of these type incidents that have heard, as I said, since December, including four cardiac arrest cases that went to the wrong address. And one of those was a newborn child that was in cardiac arrest. They went to the wrong address. D.C. Fire and EMS was dispatched to 3,100 Wisconsin Avenue instead of an address on Massachusetts Avenue. And 45 minutes later, they arrive and this newborn, just born in this apartment building, was in cardiac arrest.

  • 12:07:31

    NNAMDIAs we heard from Senator Kagan, Dave, water rescues can be especially difficult in terms of pinpointing location. What, in your view, would help?

  • 12:07:41

    STATTERWell, one of the first things and I know they're already working on at Loudoun-Montgomery County is they were very rigid in who responds. Loudoun had to send it to Montgomery County. They're working now -- and they've already made some changes that they're going to respond from both sides of the river. But this is a problem up and down the Potomac. Not just on the river, but on the land also, where -- I live right near the 14th Street Bridge, for example. And it either goes to Arlington and D.C. And the others might get there sooner. They don't dispatch both. They should dispatch on both sides of the bridge, as they should on both sides of the river.

  • 12:08:14

    NNAMDIDave, this was just one of many incidents that you've reported on. What trends have you seen this year in regards to fire and EMS dispatches?

  • 12:08:24

    STATTERIt's not a good trend, particularly in the District of Columbia. What we don't know about is how long it takes them to process calls. They've long had a history -- particularly in D.C.'s 911 center -- of delaying calls. It takes too long to send D.C. Fire and EMS. But what I've been hearing is a lot of duplicate responses where they're wasting resources because they get multiple calls about an incident. I hear I'm sending fire and EMS to the wrong location too many times, things that don't make sense.

  • 12:08:52

    STATTERJust last night, they had an address for -- they put out at 37 1st Street Southeast, right at East Capitol Street, for an apartment building. You know what sits at 37 1st Street Southeast in East Capitol Street? The U.S. Capitol Building. There's no apartment building there. It's stuff that goes back to training. They have wonderful people that work there. I just don't think they're trained well enough at D.C. 911. I think they need more -- better leadership and better policies.

  • 12:09:21

    NNAMDIHere is someone who doesn't want to be named in D.C. Anonymous, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:29

    UNIDENTIFIEDHey, Kojo. I used to work at the Montgomery County 911 Center. And I was hired on in the midst of some technological upgrades that really kind of hampered our ability to do the dispatching. Morale was always a problem with our directors there. But the technology, the scripts that we had to read, they helped medical and fire. A lot of times with police, not so much. We had frustrated callers because we had to ask questions that seemed like we weren't paying attention. And we were unable to think critically. It was almost actively discouraged. I won't go quite that far, but it seemed that way. And, again, I think training, I think pride in the job and morale is huge in Maryland, PG County, D.C. and Loudoun County.

  • 12:10:20

    NNAMDIWhat kinds of questions were you required to ask that the caller would think were not necessarily relevant?

  • 12:10:27

    UNIDENTIFIEDIt depended on the call. But there is a script that we had to read that a company puts out. I know the county paid a lot of money for that script. And I know, for example, I had a burglary call, and the person was in the house. And the program did not have an option to select that the person calling about the burglary was in the house. And it frustrated the caller. It frustrated me. It delayed only by, you know, 10-15 seconds with me trying to figure out how to send the call over and send the officers updates. Turns out, there was nobody in the house. It was just his imagination. But that kind of frustration was palpable in the center.

  • 12:11:10

    NNAMDISenator Kagan, what can Montgomery County do about that?

  • 12:11:14

    KAGANWell, first, thanks, Kojo. Recently, we have rolled out text to 911, which is important in the incident that this caller just cited. If you can, you should always call. It's better and faster. But if you can't call, because the bad guy actually is in your house, you can now text to 911 everywhere in Maryland. We're talking about regional cooperation. D.C. and Maryland work really well together through COG, the Council of Governments.

  • 12:11:46

    KAGANWe have been working, Arlington, Alexandria, D.C., Prince George's, Montgomery, Frederick, Charles, the whole region is working together to try to save lives. In terms of the staffing, it is one of the biggest challenges. So, the caller and Mr. Statter are right in that training is critical. There are protocols, because there needs to accountability. But we do need people to be able to make independent decisions. But the protocols have to drive things. In terms of the newborn dying in an apartment building, I had a gentleman die in my district, one of the three, which was also about not being able to locate him.

  • 12:12:28

    NNAMDIOkay. We got to take a short break. I'm going to have to interrupt you. We can continue this conversation. We'll also talk with the Director of D.C.'s Office of Unified Communications when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing 911 systems in this region with Dave Statter. He's a Former WUSA 9 reporter, now runs Statter911, a fire and EMS news site. Cheryl Kagan is a Maryland State Senator representing Montgomery County. Senator Kagan, I interrupted you. Please, go ahead and finish what you were saying when we took that break.

  • 12:13:13

    KAGANThank you. So, the other key I just want to mention is the importance of recruitment and retention of our 911 specialists. They are underappreciated, underpaid, under-benefited and they don't get the mental health and support that they need. We have passed legislation to address those issues in Maryland, but we must appreciate these sheroes and heroes who work every day saving lives. And the only time we hear about them in the press is when there's a mistake. But they handle literally millions of calls in the State of Maryland, in D.C. and around the country for people who are having the worst day of their life with police, fire or paramedics needed right away.

  • 12:13:54

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Karima Holmes, Director of D.C.'s Office of Unified Communications, which handles 911 calls. Karima Holmes, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:14:02

    KARIMA HOLMESThank you for having me.

  • 12:14:04

    NNAMDIYour office oversees D.C.'s 1.8 million 911 calls each year. As Senator Kagan was just pointing out, that's a lot of emergency calls, most of which are handled without issues. But what is your office's response to some of the problems we've been talking about?

  • 12:14:23

    HOLMESSure. Thank you, Kojo, for giving me the opportunity to talk about my agency. And before I directly address that question, let me start off by saying that it is abundantly clear that Dave Statter is making a concerted effort to fool the public into thinking there's a systematic problem with D.C. 911. There is not. Now, I'm not saying that we don't ever make and error. We do. But he has misrepresented and distorted the truth. You know, the drowning incident that was referenced to earlier, that was a dispatcher error. And we looked into it. We investigated it, and it was addressed appropriately with that dispatcher, including some training for all of our dispatchers.

  • 12:14:57

    HOLMESWe have investigated many of these calls that Statter has alleged that we dispatch incorrectly, and most of them are found to be baseless. And just to refute quickly a couple of them that I recently -- which were recently brought to my attention, there was a call he says we had done incorrectly on Randolph Street. The caller gave us that wrong address. We verified it three times.

  • 12:15:21

    HOLMESThere was a double shooting on Southern Avenue a couple of weeks ago. We had distraught mother calling us trying to find her victim daughter. She didn't know where she was. We sent responders to the address that she thought her daughter was at. And even recently, there was a call about a deadly crash on Suitland Parkway where he claimed we didn't send an ambulance. We did, as soon as we found out there were injuries, and so sharing snippets of radio traffic and other incomplete, piecemeal records do not accurately convey the full picture here. You know, you're drawing conclusions --

  • 12:15:53

    NNAMDIWell, it seems that in order to -- to portray the full picture, there needs to be transparency. And what Dave Statter is saying is that D.C. Fire and EMS does not have a great deal of transparency. All of the situations you are now explaining to me should, I guess, have been also explained publically. Shouldn't they?

  • 12:16:14

    HOLMESThey have been. I have to be completely honest. Dave Statter is not my oversight. I have our mayor. I have our deputy mayor, and we also have Council. They were explained. They do have this information. All of that gets investigated, and we do a full investigation, not only with just the radio traffic that is heard on the social media. We listen to the 911 call and also the information that is given from a caller that is usually going through an emergency to my call taker, to my dispatcher to the responders. And anytime an error is made, we address it. So, that is not true. We are transparent.

  • 12:16:48

    NNAMDIWell, after this most recent incident that resulted in the triple drowning on the Potomac River, residents also are calling for transparency. And the city says it is considering an audit of your department. What would that mean?

  • 12:17:01

    HOLMESYou know, at this point, I welcome an audit. I know what we do in this agency. As our senator, who is also my 911 shero -- as the senator said, we take millions of calls for service a year. Most of those calls go through without error. In the case of the drowning, we had the address. We did send the address out for backup for units that were already on the scene. And as I said, we addressed it. Any training that needs to happen, it happens. We give training up to 10,000 hours a year. We're actually the training hub for 911 centers here in the region. And we have individuals signing up across the country for training. That is hosted by OUC.

  • 12:17:38

    HOLMESI do want to talk about the protocol. OUC has actually been recognized, because we don't carry a rigid protocol system. We have a criteria-based dispatch system that we worked cohesively with our fine EMS partners and our MPD partners, where our dispatchers don't get sucked in into having a certain statement. It's more fluid. It allows the caller to give more information. And it also allows us to get more information out to our responders.

  • 12:18:05

    NNAMDISenator Kagan talked about the status of next generation 911. Where does implementation stand in D.C., and what are some of the challenges?

  • 12:18:14

    HOLMESSure. So, for years, the senator and I have worked together with Next Gen 911 across the region. Kojo, I'm the Vice Chair of the Metropolitan Washington's 911 Director's Group. And so, we have a regional EazzyNet that we're working on. D.C. is in phase four of phase five of completing our EazzyNet. And, basically, what that does is it's going to have the 911 centers be able to talk to each other more fluently. We're constantly transferring calls in and out. And it's also just a response to the senator talking, she explained that 911 is over 50 years old, and we're still operating off that same equipment. So, Next Gen 911 basically just takes us from a landline, copper-based system to an IP digital based system, along with the rest of the world, quite frankly.

  • 12:19:01

    NNAMDIHere is Christina in Washington, D.C. Christina, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:07

    CHRISTINAThank you, Kojo. I just wanted to bring it to people's attention that the D.C. 911 program is a huge problem. My daughter has a very good friend. She's a teenager. And she watched her mother die from a heart attack in her home because D.C. 911 sent EMS to the wrong address. So, people who deny that this is not happening are incorrect. And now this poor child, who is 14 years old, and about to start high school, no longer has a mother. And her grandmother, who's now in her 80s, has to raise this child on her own. So the woman who's talking about D.C. 911 not having a problem is dramatically incorrect. And this affects people's lives on a daily basis. Thank you very much.

  • 12:19:51

    NNAMDIAnd are you absolutely sure that the correct address was given to D.C. 911, Christina?

  • 12:19:58

    CHRISTINAI am absolutely positive. I know this family personally, and I know the address they gave. And I know the address that the EMS went to, and it was not correct.

  • 12:20:09

    NNAMDIWell, I don't know if Karima Holmes can respond to that specific situation, because she may not know exactly what you're talking about. But I'll give her the opportunity to do that. Karima?

  • 12:20:18

    HOLMESThank you. First of all, that is absolutely tragic to hear. And I don't know the specific incident, and I don't know in the time frame when that has occurred if this happened since I've been here, and I've investigated. But I do have to say that I can never say that there is not a problem in the 911 system. Things are hard. People are in the middle of emergencies and sometimes that address is wrong. And sometimes it is the call taker that addresses or takes the call wrong. What I'm saying is that it is not a systematic problem in D.C. 911. These things happen. But, fortunately, we have safety nets in place to make sure they don't. For instance, I live here in the District.

  • 12:20:57

    HOLMESThe majority of my 911 call takers live in the District. We live here, too. It's personal for us. This is not a job. So, we take it very serious. What I'm trying to say is what Dave Statter is pushing out is as though we have some problem with transparency. There's some systematic problem, and we're not doing call the majority of the time correctly, and that's not true.

  • 12:21:17

    NNAMDIOkay. We only have about a minute and a half left. Dave Statter, what changes do you think could be implemented to improve emergency responses in our region?

  • 12:21:26

    STATTERTransparency and accountability in D.C. Ms. Holmes is incorrect. I agree that some of those are call taker -- caller problems, not just call taker. But she reported to the D.C. Council there were only five times -- four times last year that they were sent to bad addresses, 21 times in five years. And I can show 38 bad addresses since December. So, she's not really being clear to you, Kojo, on this. So, we need transparency and accountability.

  • 12:21:49

    NNAMDIWell, clearly the two of you differ, and we don't have time to resolve it, because we only have about a minute left. Cheryl Kagan, Maryland has been working on allowing texts to 911. We talked about that already. Tell us more about the role of geographic information systems and how that affects accuracy if 911 specialists are picking up on locations from a cell tower and not our phone. How we can we ensure precision?

  • 12:22:13

    KAGANYes. So, that's a huge problem, and it's one of the biggest priorities that the average person will not ever see.

  • 12:22:20

    NNAMDIYou only have about 40 seconds left.

  • 12:22:21

    KAGANOkay. We're talking about not just latitude and longitude and not just the location of the cell tower, but where people are also elevation in an office building, in a hotel room. You've got to be able to get not just into the right building, but also at the right floor, so you can provide quick response. It's a lot of work. We need to update maps and partner with crowdsourcing, as well as Apple, Goggle and others to make sure we can update our maps to save lives.

  • 12:22:49

    NNAMDICheryl Kagan, Dave Statter, Karima Holmes, thank you all for joining us. And everyone in this region hopes that we can see the best 911 systems that we can afford. So, good luck to all of you. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll looking back at the publication of the fabricated “Jimmy's World” story in The Washington Post and the effect it had on our region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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