The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Washington, D.C.:
911 Is Unreliable

Sep 18, 2023

A recent audit of Washington, D.C.’s 911 emergency assistance system found only minimal progress has been made since the system had been cited for substandard functioning last year. D.C. officials failed to implement most of the recommendations by the city’s auditor to improve the 911 call center. These improvements might have allowed first responders to be dispatched more quickly to emergencies and ensure they reach the correct address.

The 911 call center came under scrutiny again after firefighters were sent to the wrong address for a newborn in cardiac arrest in July, and mistakes delayed the arrival of paramedics trying to reach a 3-month-old boy who had been left in a car in August. Both children died.

This is not a new problem. In June of 2020, a teenage girl called 911 because her mother was dying in front of her. The girl gave her correct address, twice, to the 911 operator. “414 Oglethorpe Street Northeast Washington, D.C.” She had to wait and wait and wait some more because the emergency workers were sent to the wrong address: 414 Oglethorpe, Northwest Washington, D.C. Twenty-one minutes after the call was first initiated and 15 minutes after she had been instructed to perform chest compressions on her mother, help arrived. Her mother was dead.

This is what it means when people have to wait for long periods in an emergency situation. Someone dies; a house burns to the ground. Last month, 10 dogs drowned after it took emergency responders 23 minutes to arrive at a flooded dog daycare. It was fortunate that the seven workers trapped inside didn’t drown as well.

Why is 911 failing D.C. residents? In a word: understaffing. Last month alone, 40% of D.C. 911 center shifts were understaffed. Multiple callers were kept on hold for 4 minutes or longer. In an emergency, 4 minutes is an eternity and can have dire consequences. According to national standards, 90% of 911 calls should be answered within 15 seconds. D.C.’s 911 center only met that 90% metric on one of the eight days in the audit.

D.C. residents don’t need any more studies on the 911 center. They need for the problems to be fixed. That means: hire and train many more 911 call-takers immediately. Anything less will mean more deaths.