WASHINGTON (AP) — A policy of routing calls about emergencies on the Metro subway to a supervisor at the District of Columbia's 911 call center contributed to delays in getting firefighters to a fatal rail malfunction early this year.
The supervisor who took the calls from Metro about smoke in its tunnels did not have access to the software that 911 call takers use to help them dispatch calls quickly, according to officials at the District's Office of Unified Communications. The problem was magnified when the same supervisor took back-to-back calls before dispatching the first one, officials there told The Associated Press.
The policy and the supervisor's actions got firefighters off to a slow start getting to the scene after an electrical malfunction caused a train to fill with smoke inside a tunnel in downtown Washington on Jan. 12. Choking passengers waited 30 minutes for help.
One woman died of respiratory failure, and more than 80 others were sickened by smoke. The sons of the woman who died have sued Metro, arguing that her death was preventable.
Metro has faced scrutiny about its mechanical failures, the behavior of the train operator and its inability to communicate the gravity of the problem to passengers or emergency responders. The role of the communications office, which handles all 911 calls in the city, has received less attention from investigators and elected officials.
Yet a review by the AP of the response to the Metro incident and data provided by the office raises troubling questions about how quickly the center handled the Metro calls — and 911 calls in general.
After the first three calls the office received about smoke or fire in the subway tunnels, it took 5 minutes, 4 minutes and 6 minutes, respectively, for firefighters to be dispatched. Five minutes is nearly twice the average dispatch time for city 911 calls and more than twice the 90-second deadline that many fire departments strive for.
While there are no consensus national standards, the National Fire Protection Association recommends that departments should aim to dispatch 90 percent of calls within 90 seconds or less. Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland are among the departments that hold themselves to that standard.
Since that passenger's death in January, the communications office has changed the way it handles calls from Metro. One reason they had been routed to a supervisor is that Metro's command center is in Maryland — which means someone can't call 911 from there and get a District operator.
The communications office also has changed the menu options on the line that Metro calls so that the first option is to be sent to a 911 operator, who asks the caller a series of questions prompted by a computer program and then sends the call to the queue for dispatch. It's up to a dispatcher to decide which calls to handle first.
Some lower-priority calls sit in the queue longer than higher-priority ones, which drives down the average dispatch time, said Stephen Williams, the call center's chief of operations. But that practice makes sense in a city that receives 1.3 million 911 calls a year, allowing resources to be directed quickly to the most critical emergencies, he said.
Over a recent 14-month period, the District's average dispatch times ranged from a low of 2 minutes 33 seconds to a high of 2 minutes 54 seconds. This January, the average time was 2 minutes 47 seconds.
Williams declined to comment on whether the supervisor who took the Metro calls would be disciplined, saying the matter remains under investigation.
Marc Bashoor, the fire chief in Prince George's County, said the District's response times are challenged by its high call volume and its traffic-choked streets. But he said his county receives roughly 75 percent as many medical calls as the District does and that calls are not routinely placed into a queue before they are dispatched.
"That's their internal policy," Bashoor said. "That's not an industry standard."
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