D.C. has long struggled with 911 calls. Then 10 dogs died in a flood.
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D.C. has long struggled with 911 calls. Then 10 dogs died in a flood.

Jul 18, 2023

Surrounded by pieces of drywall and fighting to keep his nose above water, Anthony Hebert scoured the room for his Aussiedoodle.

“Jupiter,” he shouted. “Jupiter!”

All Hebert could recall hearing was water gurgle and gush as it crashed into District Dogs, knocking down walls and swallowing kennels that held other people’s pets.

“Help,” he said. “I need help!”

Help would not come for 23 minutes. That is more than three times longer than what industry standards say it should have taken the ambulances and firetrucks, ideally, to arrive at the flooding dog day care. Meanwhile, 10 other dogs trapped in kennels drowned.

The delay reflects deep-rooted issues inside D.C.’s 911 center, which observers say continues to make critical mistakes despite years of warnings by government officials and outside investigators that the agency needs an overhaul. The incident also sparked outrage at other parts of the D.C. government and at the dog day care, which had long been on notice that the area was susceptible to flooding.

Last year alone, employees at the Office of Unified Communications sent D.C. firefighters to the wrong address for a report of a newborn in cardiac arrest, canceled a call for service about a child pulled unconscious from a hot car, and mistakenly treated a call about a man who had collapsed as low priority. Though the effect of the delays remains unclear, all three of those people died.

“I was not surprised that there was another glitch,” said Kathleen Patterson, D.C.’s auditor. “There are systemic issues.”

As water poured into District Dogs last week — with Hebert struggling to stay afloat, still searching for his 4-year-old doodle — two people called 911 to report a dire emergency. But for reasons that remain unclear, two separate dispatchers did not relay that information to firefighters in the field.

One person, who said they were a District Dogs manager watching the store through a webcam, told a 911 call-taker that a flood of water broke through walls, 911 transcripts show. A few minutes later, another person who said they were an assistant manager told a call-taker that the day care looked like a swimming pool. But according to emergency responder radio communications from that day, the dispatchers reported to responders in the field that the business had a water leak. Seven people were inside the day care.

City agencies would not provide copies of the notes from the call-takers to the dispatchers, nor the encrypted radio transcripts between dispatchers and firefighters. The fire department referred reporters to the Office of Unified Communications. The office did not respond to that request and other questions for this article.

“Office of Unified Communications is a s--- show, you can quote me on that,” said Colleen Costello, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Northeast Washington whose shepherd mix, Maple, died in the flash flood. “They need help in the biggest way.”

Top officials in the District have known about problems at the 911 center for years. A 2021 audit described “inadequate supervision of call-taking and dispatch operations and insufficient management follow-up on after-action reviews,” and issued urgent recommendations. A year later, the auditor reported that the 911 center had made almost no progress addressing their concerns. By March, according to the auditor, the center had made some progress but was still not compliant with certain standards — like scheduling staff members to handle “predictable spikes in call volume.”

The tumult in the office extended to its highest ranks. Last year, the mayor’s appointed acting director of the call center withdrew her name the night before lawmakers were scheduled to vote on her nomination. She had lost the support of the D.C. Council’s chairman and the head of the public safety committee at the time.

Dave Statter, a retired WUSA reporter who closely tracks emergency dispatches, has repeatedly uncovered and reported failings in sending emergency responders to correct locations in the District.

On Monday, Heather McGaffin, the Office of Unified Communications director who was confirmed earlier this year, sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether her staff made mistakes responding to the flooding.

“What I am saying is we could have done things differently. This was an unprecedented event,” she said. “And so now, as we look at what we could have done differently, we are making changes.”

McGaffin also said her department was short-staffed at the time of the flood. At a recent Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting, she said that her agency had 28 openings in 911 call-taking, which represented an entire shift, and that it was receiving more complex calls.

In the most recent audit, inspectors found that the center had recruited more than 30 new employees but that more than 50 employees had left. The auditor wrote that emergency communications centers across the country have reported “chronic staffing shortages” and high employee turnover.

In last year’s fiscal budget, the city allocated $100,000 to support call-taker and dispatcher recruiting efforts. Lawmakers did not renew that enhanced funding this year.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Lindsey Appiah, who oversees the Office of Unified Communications, declined a request for an interview. Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), the chair of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee, also declined an interview request — but said in a statement that she is “concerned by the inaccuracies by the dispatcher” and has made clear that “process improvements are necessary.”

The city passed emergency legislation last month requiring the Office of Unified Communications to post data on the number of call-taker and dispatcher errors and their causes on a monthly basis. As of early Friday evening, two days before the first month’s deadline, the agency had yet to post the required information.

Family members of people who died in D.C. in incidents with delayed emergency responses lambasted the 911 center for what they described as “negligence” and a “total calamity” at the dog day care. They also said they were disappointed that people appeared to be paying more attention to problems at the 911 center after the dogs died, rather than the people who died in cases with similar mistakes.

A GoFundMe has raised more than $21,000 for “District Dogs flood survivors,” with the donations going to staff members.

“It’s negligence at this point that they still haven’t done the work,” said Aujah Griffin, whose father died last year in an incident that she alleged was marked by dispatch errors and a delayed emergency response. “His case was never given this type of attention, and it wouldn’t have been given this type of attention if I haven’t been giving all the advocacy that I could.”

D.C. police previously told WUSA that the Office of Unified Communications had given officers the wrong location when responding to a call about Griffin’s father, David Earl Griffin. He was acting erratically at the Southwest Waterfront and ultimately went in the Washington Channel and drowned.

The Office of Unified Communications, in a statement last year, defended its employees but said they were being “counseled to review how this might have been handled better.”

Billie Shepperd, whose 59-year-old daughter, Sheila Shepperd, died after suffering a heart attack three years ago in an incident in which an ambulance was dispatched to the wrong quadrant of the city, said that the response to the dog day care was “unconscionable” and that she grieved with the people who lost their pets.

“These kinds of failures happen too often — for human beings, dogs, property — and it extends through one’s whole family,” she said. “There is not just one victim, and I say that because of what happened to me.”

Shepperd also urged more attention on the human lives affected by emergency response mismanagement: “It appears that people put more emphasis on their pets,” she said. “I have been a dog owner and lover for years. But I think human life is something different.”

The Office of Unified Communications has publicly apologized for its response, which left Sheila Shepperd’s 13-year-old daughter performing CPR on her mother for more than 10 minutes.

Lawmakers, residents blast D.C.’s 911 call center at council hearing

District Dogs is located on the ground level of a high-rise at 680 Rhode Island Ave. NE, in an area that has experienced chronic flooding since the 1800s. The business similarly found itself underwater last year during a storm, but city officials later inspected it and deemed it safe, said Brian J. Hanlon, acting director of the D.C. Department of Buildings.

After that inspection, Hanlon said, officials recommended that the District Dogs owner consider purchasing barricades for the front of the building. The barricades were in place when the downpour started on Monday, Hanlon said, but they proved inadequate for the intense rainfall.

A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings declined to provide a copy of last year’s inspection report, saying that The Washington Post should submit a Freedom of Information Act request, which can take months to process.

D.C. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) said in a Friday letter to constituents that he is “exploring legislation that will require greater scrutiny of businesses attempting to locate in flood-prone zones.”

Some pet owners have blamed Jacob Hensley, the owner of District Dogs, for not having a better escape plan for the animals, especially given the business’s flood-prone location.

Kerry and Jonathan Garro said in an interview with The Post last week that they were traveling when Hensley called them with the news that their dog had died in the flood. Malee, a 5-year-old mixed breed the Garros had rescued from Thailand, knew how to swim but was locked in a kennel when the water started to rise, according to a spokesman for the fire department.

“If I knew, sitting at a computer in Alaska, that there was rain in the forecast that day, it seems unreasonable that there had not been a greater precaution taken,” Kerry Garro said. “I don’t blame the employees. I blame whatever protocol they had in place.”

Kerry Garro said she confronted Hensley over the phone about what she described as his inadequate preparation: “I said to him, ‘You have a mass casualty event at your facility.’ He came into this call blaming the city and taking no responsibility.”

Hensley has announced that he plans to permanently shutter the Rhode Island Avenue location of District Dogs. His business, in a statement last week, praised staff for following emergency procedures. He declined requests for an interview. Emergency responders ultimately rescued 20 dogs, and all seven people inside made it out, authorities have said.

Hebert, who happened to be picking up his dog from day care when the downpour started, said he saw tan fur break through the murky water after a wall crashed down. Jupiter’s brown eyes emerged wide and afraid.

Hebert threw his hands out, grabbed Jupiter’s front paws, pulled him in and began to hoist all 70 pounds of Aussiedoodle above his head, water lapping at his nose.

Through a crack in the window, Hebert saw red and white lights in the distance. Shoved against the window, he hoped they would move closer. But the lights stayed distant.

He let go of Jupiter with one hand and grasped a window panel, pulled it back about eight inches, and shoved Jupiter through. Hebert followed. They landed on ground soaked and covered in pieces of drywall and dirt.

Hebert said he carried Jupiter to his car, where the dog immediately started rolling around, trying to dry himself off.

“We’re okay, baby,” he said to Jupiter. “We’re okay.”

Hebert sat in the front seat, so scared he could barely move, and wondered whether he should stay to talk to authorities.

“I didn’t hear sirens. I didn’t hear anybody. I didn’t hear a helicopter. I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “There was no sound of anybody coming.”

He drove Jupiter home.