WASHINGTON — D.C.'s mayor has just reappointed a controversial 911 call center director who left under a cloud a year ago. Critics say they are both surprised and furious that Karima Holmes is back in charge of a call center that's repeatedly sent rescue crews to the wrong locations.
Mayor Muriel Bowser's office insists Holmes is a "seasoned professional" and a "recognized emergency communications industry leader."
"I mean, I was just shocked," said Billie Shepperd whose daughter died while Holmes was director of the Office of Unified Communications.
Shepperd's 13-year-old granddaughter, Maria, was absolutely clear she was in Northeast, D.C. when her mother, 59-year-old Sheila Shepperd, collapsed on June 5, 2020.
"What's the location of your emergency?" the call taker asks on a recording of the desperate call for help.
"414 Oglethorpe St. Northeast," the teen says -- repeatedly.
But the call taker sent rescue crews to the wrong quadrant -- 414 Oglethorpe St., NW -- a mile-and-a-half away.
"Caller says this is not the address," firefighters said when they arrive at the address in Northwest.
"I think she stopped breathing," Maria tells the call taker at about the same time.
Firefighters finally arrived at the right address 21 minutes after Shepperd's granddaughter called for help -- and by then it was too late.
Now, family members are expressing shock and disappointment that the woman in charge of the department at the time of this deadly error would be allowed to reclaim her position.
"Why in heaven would you bring back someone with a record like Holmes?" Shepperd asked. "It's unconscionable. This city, my family and every family and individual deserve something so much better."
A city audit in October 2021 found the 911 call center failed to meet national standards. The report pinned the blame on leadership.
"Just utter surprise, absolute surprise given the findings of our audit in October," DC Auditor Kathy Patterson said in response to Holmes' reappointment.
One example of the audit findings was that the call center failed to put enough supervisors on the floor with the call takers.
"That is something management should understand and rectify," Patterson said. "And it doesn't take five years to do that."
DC Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Chris Geldart said it is unfair to lay all the problems identified in the audit at Holmes' feet.
"Were there issues at the center? Yes," he admitted.
Geldart said Holmes grew up in the 911 call center, that she came up through the ranks and that many of the problems detailed in the audit were issues she had been working to fix for years.
"The nomination is shortsighted and risks undoing the progress we were starting to see in a troubled agency with a critical mission," Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George said. "When it comes to keeping our residents safe during emergencies, every second in response time matters. We urgently need the alarming issues at the Office of Unified Communications to be recognized and resolved, especially as our city grapples with a public safety crisis."
The website Statter911, which broke the story of Holme's reappointment, points to a pattern of call center delays and misdirections, from the L'Enfant Metro fire on Jan. 12, 2015 that killed Carol Glover, to a deadly Kennedy St. blaze on August 18, 2019 that left 9-year-old Yafet Solomen, 9, and 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede dead.
"I don't get why you wouldn't have sent an engine?" DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson asked Holmes in a November 2019 hearing about the Kennedy St. fire, where there was a 4-minute delay.
"We didn't send an engine because my dispatcher was not clear what type of fire it was," Holmes responded.
But Bowser has long supported Holmes.
"We are lucky to have Karima Holmes run our 911 call center," Bowser said in response to reporter questions in 2020. "She is renowned around the country."