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Quicker 911 Operators Touted by DC Mayor

Thursday, October 14, 2004
Improved performance has cut down on the number of callers who hang up in frustration

By Lori Montgomery, Washington Post Staff Writer

The District's long-troubled 911 communications system has improved dramatically over the past year, with operators now answering emergency calls so quickly that many callers "don't even hear a ring," D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday.

Last month, city operators answered 94 percent of all emergency calls within five seconds, Williams said, a substantial improvement from a year ago, when operators were meeting the five-second goal on just 64.5 percent of calls. The improved performance has cut down on the number of callers who hang up in frustration without ever getting anyone on the line, Williams said.

Last month, about 3 percent of 911 callers abandoned their attempts to contact city authorities, compared with 10 percent in September 2003. "Over the years, we've received a lot of criticism, much of it justified, for the lack of progress" in responding to emergency calls, Williams (D) told reporters at his weekly news conference. "But that's changed."

For years, the city's 911 system has drawn complaints and triggered scandals as callers reported getting no answer, hearing a recording or being put on hold. In January 2003, a 24-year-old man died in a Dupont Circle house fire after police operators bungled calls about the blaze.

And the D.C. Council briefly blocked the renewal of Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey's contract, in part, because of problems with 911.

Since he took office in 1999, Williams has instituted reforms aimed at resolving such problems. In 2000, the city created the 311 system for non-emergency calls. In 2001, the city moved police and fire operators into a single public safety communications center. In the past year, the city has hired dozens of additional call takers and created the Office of Unified Communications, which eventually will combine police and fire operators into a single, seamless emergency system.

The new office is scheduled to take up residence in a state-of-the-art "Unified Communications Center" on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in December 2005, Williams said.

In January, the city hired Michael Latessa to direct the effort. Latessa, now interim director of the Office of Unified Communications, said he brought his own innovations, including "putting in place performance standards that we are holding people accountable to."

The results have been dramatic, Williams said. The call center receives about 1.8 million calls each year, about 1 million to 911 and the rest to 311. City operators also have improved their response times for non-emergency calls, the mayor said, picking up 90 percent of such calls within 11 seconds last month, compared with just 74 percent of such calls last year.

Williams and Latessa said they expect the emergency communications system to do even better after it moves into its new home. "I think you're going to see a real change in the culture out there, moving forward," Latessa said. "We're making it the gold standard for other 911 centers in the country."