NEW: DC 911 drops emergency radio channel for 20 minutes

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For 20 minutes, DC 911 failed to respond to an emergency radio channel. Eight separate times, DC’s fire and emergency units handling emergency medical calls attempted to reach a dispatcher early on July 19. No dispatcher responded. In the above recording of OpenMHz.com you will hear the voice of a dispatcher at 5:00 a.m. A dispatcher is no longer heard on the channel before 5:20 a.m.

This is at least the 17th time in as many months that a radio channel has been dropped a few minutes at a time by dispatchers at the DC Unified Communications (OUC) office. It was also the longest episode of radio silence. Additionally, while working to learn more about this incident, I discovered another case last Thursday – issue # 18.

It’s hard to understand how a 911 center can routinely fail at such a crucial part of its mission – responding to the radio when firefighters, paramedics and paramedics call. In over 50 years of regularly monitoring emergency radio traffic and four years as a fire department dispatcher, I have never heard of such a situation. Last year, STATter911 documented incidents where dispatchers did not respond to the radio when an ambulance team needed immediate police assistance, when help was needed for a patient in cardiac arrest and as firefighters attempted to coordinate with police during a shootout.

The OUC acting director has confirmed that the July 19 incident has occurred and is being investigated. Cleo Subido’s email response also verifies that this is a chronic issue that she is addressing. Subido wrote: “I want you to know that as I said in public as well as in performance audiences, this is a deal breaker and absolutely unacceptable. This is one of the reasons I am monitoring radio channels and researching things like this so that we can fix it and everyone can see that we are going to fix it with clear and consistent disciplinary action.

In a July 16 email to staff, Subido cautioned against having to find out about these failures from outside sources – like STATter911 – rather than through the chain of command:

While Subido was already aware of the incident of July 19 when I asked for information, she was not aware of the incident of last Thursday. In this case (audio below), Engine 4 was on a medical appeal at a construction site. Engine company officer attempted to radio for additional fire units, engine 4 needed assistance to bring victim to street level 20 feet below grade in construction area near Sherman Avenue and Harvard Street, NW. Engine 4 called three times on the radio but received no response. Engine 4 eventually switched to another radio channel where a dispatcher responded. There were four other unanswered radio transmissions on this channel during the same time. When a dispatcher finally responded, he said, “I’m with IT and they’re trying to fix the system. Subido wrote that this had not been brought to his attention internally. Subido has not yet verified the evocation by the dispatcher of a technical problem causing the channel to remain unanswered.

Subido’s handling of these incidents is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Karima Holmes. Holmes did not respond when STATter911 asked about a dozen such incidents under his watch between February and December last year. In March 2020, when the reporter from WTTG-TV / FOX5 Evan Lambert followed up on one of the incidents, he received an enigmatic response that it was a “technical error”. A year later, Cleo Subido painted a very different picture when asked during a DC Council watchdog hearing about these radio silence issues. Subido described several common mistakes made by dispatchers that result in unmonitored radio channels (below)

STATter911 asked Subido if the same issue was happening with the dispatchers on the police side. Here is his response:

To answer your other questions, it has happened on rare occasions on the police side, but it is only ever a short interval and it is dealt with immediately. I have never had to discipline anyone since I have been here on the MPD side for this action. So there are several things going on to help prevent this. We no longer allow dispatchers to move their assigned seats before and after breaks. There was a rotation where you would sit in the same place but cut channels. They are no longer allowed to do this. We have assigned channels that are always in the same seat and they are responsible for moving their seat when granting breaks. etc.

Subido believes that being consistent, transparent and swift about disciplining unmonitored radio channels is starting to get this problem under control.

As Subido pointed out in the July 16 staff email, there are a lot of serious and long-standing workplace issues at OUC that she is trying to correct. Some of them are very basic, like showing up for work, working the entire shift, and tracking orders.

Subido’s openness and transparency remains a refreshing change. Hopefully this will translate into significant, long-term improvements to the DC 911.

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