In D.C., 911 can be a joke

Jonathan Make
4 min readAug 29, 2023

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“911 is a joke,” Public Enemy rapped, in 1990, in a song of the same name. “I dialed 911 a long time ago.”

I frequently recalled the lyrics to “911 is a Joke” during the year that a journalist colleague and I tried to peel back the onion of Washington, D.C.’s broken emergency communications system. It seemed like our reporting — combined with much other scrutiny of the District of Columbia’s 911 system — might actually prompt sustained fixes.

For a while, I was optimistic things might improve. The head of 911 in the city suddenly left, a reformist replaced her and some improvements were being made in dispatcher training and supervision.

These changes did not stick. This became evident shortly after our series of articles concluded in 2020. (For the record, the 911 agency didn’t reply to my requests for comment for this blog post.)

OUC during a tour I took in 2019.

Medics, police officers and firefighters still were being dispatched to incorrect locations or sent only after an unnecessary delay. I knew this not because I continued investigating (I had to move on to other reporting topics), but because of the dogged blogging and tweeting by 911 expert Dave Statter.

At the same time, the new, interim head of Washington’s municipal 911 agency, the Office of Unified Communications, didn’t stick around in that post for very long. The mayor (ultimately unsuccessfully) tried to bring back a previous director of OUC — even though many of the dispatching problems seemed to originate or fester on her watch.

One of my proudest accomplishments in 30 years of journalism had, perhaps, amounted to nothing. I felt like I could only watch from the sidelines as early efforts at improving 911 reliability quickly cratered.

I continue to wonder if I could have done a lot more.

Then just this month, things came to a head when a dog daycare flooded, killing 10 dogs and temporarily trapping people.

It was soon reported that OUC had apparently dropped the ball in not quickly communicating about these conditions to firefighters, who were already nearby because of serious flooding. I watched this unfold while I was visiting Washington.

Finally, there were journalists on the case of OUC. The tragic death of dogs was on the front page of the Washington Post and on the local television news.

So far, there continues to be a steady drumbeat of reporting on the fallout, in both human terms for those who lost their pets and focused on OUC. Saturday’s Post had a front-page story about this.

Whether this leads to sustained improvements, it is way too soon to tell.

I wish I had done more, earlier, to find additional details to show just how ingrained these problems appeared to have been at the 911 agency.

A dispatcher’s screen for police districts; from a tour in 2019.

Over the years, earlier problems at OUC had meant that medical help was delayed being dispatched to people in great distress.

People died during incidents like these, such as after someone stopped breathing. However, it cannot be proved that these delays directly caused anyone harm.

It was primarily through the use of D.C.’s open-record laws that my colleague and I could report that failures at OUC delayed necessary help. We showed that there was no way to solely blame other agencies or people for the slowdown in help being sent.

The only reason we got the necessary records was that, for a time, OUC itself was being transparent. For a small slice of the incidents on which we requested voluminous documentation, the agency provided all of the information.

We had the local version of the federal Freedom of Information Act to thank for this. At OUC, as with any government entity, whether FOIA is adhered to in releasing potentially embarrassing information is up to the agency itself that is facing the public spotlight.

Then this agency backtracked on what it would release going forward. The helpful civil servant who was key to prying records loose was replaced on our FOIA case by other officials. These higher-ups seemed to be more sophisticated in calculating what they should hold back from the daylight. One of these folks went on to run the entire agency.

They delayed or simply refused to release the information. They waited us out.

They won and transparency lost. The public missed out on learning about the reasons why people had to wait for first-responders to show up.

I am trying to be optimistic that OUC might improve its operations, perhaps prompted to do so by the media and political scrutiny occasioned by the recent flooding. So that the next time there is a flood, or someone is having a heart attack, or a baby is born prematurely, or someone is shot, help gets to them in just minutes.

OUC’s building, pictured in 2019. The motto reads, “WE CAN, WE WILL SAFEGUARD OUR
GREAT CITY AND OUR PEOPLE.”

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Jonathan Make

I work at USPTO but my views only here. Buff about good journalism, writing, art & culture. Heart my wife, son & pets.