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Municipal government / Technology

DC’s 911 call centers have a tech problem (and it’s not a lack of options)

DC's 911 call-takers have location technology available to them — but it turns out they aren't using it. It points to a tech-to-consumer disconnect, says one community member.

An audit flagged concerns about DC's emergency call centers. (Photo by Flickr user nadbasher, used under a Creative Commons license)
According to a new report, DC’s 911 call centers are falling short in using location software to send responders to emergency incidents.

This week, an independent audit of the District’s 911 calls found a lot of room for improvement in its centers. It points to a tech-to-consumer disconnect when it comes to the technology available to call operators.

Some of the main findings from the audit concerned abrasive attitudes from call center operators, slow response times in Wards 7 and 8 and, as it turns out, tech. According to the audit, although call centers have access to technology to pinpoint the location where a call is coming from, they rarely use it. Instead, operators primarily rely on the callers to describe the area of the incident to know where to send units (related but separate, earlier this year, a Code for DC project found that tons of incidents involving cars, bicycles and pedestrians go unreported).

“The comprehensive findings include inadequate supervision of the call-taking and dispatch operations, inconsistent or ineffective use of call script protocols, inconsistent use of location determining technology tools to determine locations, and insufficient management follow-up on after-action reviews,” wrote auditor Kathleen Patterson in the report. “At the same time, the report notes that OUC is staffed with dedicated, well-intentioned professionals and that the issues identified by FE regarding call-taking and dispatch operations can be corrected to improve service to residents and responders.”

The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) decided to pursue an audit in Feburary after complaints following a boating accident last year, in which emergency responders dispatched units to an incorrect location, WAMU reported in 2020. Federal Engineering Inc, the company tasked with the audit, reviewed call data from 2019 through 2020, interviewed staff members and took a closer look at 72 random calls from emergency services.

While there’s plenty of location software options out there (even some from DC itself), call-takers aren’t very impressed with the current option. According to the ODCA, call-takers didn’t trust the location tools for mobile phone calls, as the current equipment configuration doesn’t automatically locate cell callers for better accuracy. The audit also found gaps in initial training as well as refresher courses for call-takers and dispatchers on use and oversight of the map technology.

There’s plenty of takeaways (and potential solutions) to pull from a report like this, namely that DC’s 911 call center needs a reboot. But the lack of location software use points to an interesting problem experienced by plenty of tech companies: just because something exists, it doesn’t mean people will actually use it.

In response to our newsletter message on the same topic, reader Shanida Harvey, field contractor for IT and communication firm Ericsson and co-owner of LITA+RO candle company, offered these thoughts:

“Tech and the consumer connection is important,” Harvey wrote to us. “Both have to go hand in hand. Management should ask if there are concerns about using the technology. Some people stray from things that are different, or ‘appear too technical’.”

Here’s what they recommended to help encourage tech use:

  • Customer service classes with an IRL instructor
  • A focus group for those who called in to 911, who can share their experience
  • Hands-on training with the technology, including showing how it works in real-time
  • Bias training for the workplace, including speaking with customers
  • Complete training exercises from the start to the end of the call, complete with the tech use
  • Team building
  • Conversations with other major cities to find out how they operation
  • Honest conversations between management and lower-level employees, without any repercussions
Companies: District of Columbia

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