(Photo by Flickr user Beechwood Photography, used under a Creative Commons license)
D.C.’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (FEMS) is regularly investigated for its inefficient responses to life-threatening emergencies. Recent examples include a man who collapsed next to a fire station and died after receiving no immediate help; a man who died after police apparently shooed away an ambulance; and just last month, a toddler who died after choking on a grape, when emergency personnel a block away were not dispatched.
Yet despite the public scrutiny, FEMS has also proved itself slow on the uptake when it comes to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
A civic hacking saga
Last year, National Weather Service programmer Ryan Schuster and a handful of civic hackers at Code for DC decided to parse through the data to better understand the District’s emergency dispatch system, and where inefficiencies might lie. The project was called the Emergency Response Data Analysis project.
The plan was to “come up with a metric that predicts what response times are” based on a person’s proximity to a fire station and other factors, Schuster told Technical.ly DC.
“What we really needed was more exact data,” she said. Shuster started out with a dataset provided by Code for DC brigade cofounder Justin Grimes.
In November 2013 Grimes had asked for data on dispatch and response times that had been obtained by a team of investigative reporters at NBC4 after a year-and-a-half of legal wrangling. Grimes received the data in January 2014, more than two months later and past the 15-business day FOIA request response time limit. “I heard nothing from them, and then a couple months went by and eventually they said, ‘Oh hey, here’s your request,'” said Grimes.
Seeking a more comprehensive dataset, Schuster sent a request in March 2014 to FEMS and in April to the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) — the agency that first processes 911 calls. She asked for nine points of raw dispatch data (including the address of the incident, location of emergency response vehicles and the type of crime), as well as a record of erroneous calls, vehicle inventories and other information.
“I expected them to drag their feet,” she said. But she did not expect months of passive ignorance.
Though Schuster prodded the two agencies frequently, she received almost nothing in response to her detailed request. In March, the Metropolitan Police Department sent a two-page PDF listing the agency’s vehicles. The OUC never responded.
In July, Schuster filed an appeal to the Mayor’s Office, and found out that both agencies had lost track of the request, each in their own uniquely bumbling way.
At FEMS, the agency was operating in between FOIA officers after Shakira Pleasant left her post. “It’s difficult for me to know what happened to the inquiry itself,” FEMS spokesman Timothy Wilson told Technical.ly DC.
At OUC, the request was somehow lost after being received. “I don’t know where the ball got dropped on this,” acknowledged OUC General Counsel Gregory M. Evans. “Some of that information is absolutely obtainable.”
In the end, all Schuster received was a handful of links to pre-existing PDF documents that did not contain the detailed information needed for her project. The agencies never followed up on parts of her request, even at the urging of the mayor’s general counsel, who noted in response to Schuster’s appeal that parts of her requests had been ignored.
Without access to the raw data, the data analysis project eventually fizzled out. Schuster gave up in October.
FOIA stats improving, somewhat
The District’s overall FOIA system seems to have improved since former mayor Vincent Gray promulgated the July open government directive that implemented FOIAXPress, a streamlined FOIA request portal now used by most agencies.
In fact, according to the annual FOIA reports produced by the D.C. Secretary, the year between October 2013 and September 2014 saw the median number of days to process a FOIA request decrease compared to the previous fiscal year, from 14 to 12.35 days. And the number of FOIA requests that took more than 25 days to process were almost halved, from 1,268 to 691.
Office of Open Government Director Traci Hughes said the FOIAXpress portal is responsible for at least part of these improvements. “It did have some impact at least on the processing time and the amount of days that it was taking agencies to process requests,” she said.
There was also a drop in number of overall FOIA requests which she attributes to the open government tabs, a space where data from previous requests can live. “Members of the public can go under those tabs and find out information for themselves,” she said, making them less inclined to file new requests.
But not all agencies improved equally.
FEMS was the agency that had by far the largest number of FOIA requests that took more than 25 days to process (200). But if you’re wondering what the median response time was, don’t bother looking: the agency did not provide a figure for that.
Maybe you can FOIA it.
Update: 4/2/15, 3:44 p.m.
The new FEMS FOIA officer, Angela Washington, said the agency now tries to respond within 7-10 days. “I don’t let cases sit,” Washington told Technical.ly DC.
She cleared up a backlog of more than 200 requests that had accumulated before she took office in September, she said. On Sept. 30, according to the report, there was only one request pending.
The report does not indicate the median number of days FEMS took to process FOIA requests.
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