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Grieving family members testify at oversight hearing on DC's 911 call center

Councilmember Charles Allen convened a Judiciary Committee oversight roundtable to discuss ongoing issues with the Office of Unified Communications, and 911 calls.

WASHINGTON — Ten deaths in the last three years; five in the past six months. 

According to a DC councilmember, that's how many people have died due to mistakes in D.C.'s 911 Center. They were mothers, fathers and children who lost their lives waiting for help. 

On Wednesday, Councilmember Charles Allen convened a Judiciary Committee oversight roundtable to try to figure out what went wrong. Over the course of three hours, he brought up four names: Sevyn Schatzman-Chase, Aaron Boyd, Jr, Jesse Kyle and David Griffin. 

They are just a few of the D.C. residents who died after someone dialed 911 and help came too late due to “breaks in protocol,” including sending EMTs to wrong addresses.  

“The first time I testified, I came with grace and understanding that mistakes happen,” said Auja Griffin. "But at this point, I’m filled with outrage knowing the death of my father wasn’t even enough for changes to be made.”

Family members who have lost loved ones testified to the panel convened to examine the alleged missteps in 911 calls. Among them was Billie Shepperd, who lost her 59-year-old daughter, Sheila, in 2020 after she collapsed at home. She testified that her 13-year-old granddaughter, who called 911 and performed chest compressions while she waited for help, is still traumatized and scarred by the untimely death of her mother. Emergency crews were dispatched to the Northwest quadrant of the city instead of Northeast. 

“I have never been given an answer or a contact or a hug to say I’m sorry,” Shepperd said as she took her glasses off and started to cry.

“I’m sorry Ms. Shepperd that should never happen again,” responded Councilmember Elissa Silverman. "I want to thank your granddaughter who was performing life saving measures while waiting for medical services to come. I’m so sorry Ms. Shepperd.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has repeatedly defended the Office of Unified Communications and her pick to lead the agency for a second time, Karima Holmes, who told councilmembers a family emergency kept her away from the oversight hearing. Bowser in the past has said that honing in on certain cases is "cherry picking" calls. 

“This is not cherry-picking data, it’s a documented and troubling pattern that jeopardizes the safety of our residents in their time of need,” Councilmember Janeese Lewis-George responded. 

“The point of today’s hearing was to look at these calls and deaths and can we acknowledge that we do have calls that were failures, and how is it we move forward from that?" Allen asked. "But I’m not hearing an acknowledgment that there were failures.”

The councilmembers' efforts to get to the bottom of those failures fell short. They did hear about a perfect storm of staffing shortages and increased calls, trouble with location trackers on cellphones and concerns about reports in the news and by former WUSA9 journalist-turned-safety-advocate Dave Statter

“The blogger as well as the media has made our environment hostile,” said Debbie Knox, president of NAGE Local R3-07. "Hostile to the point of already making a stressful job more stressful job.”

The Council has approved $100,000 to help with retention and recruiting new OCU staff, which they said is a priority for the interim director.

RELATED: Mayor defends DC's 911 system despite 'break in protocol' that led to 11-minute ambulance delay

RELATED: 'I felt like nobody communicated right that night' | Infant dies after 911 dispatcher sends help to wrong address

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