“I’m not sure who you call when 911 doesn’t work”

Photo by PoPville flickr user fromcaliw/love

“Dear PoPville,

I just wanted to report what happened to me this morning after dropping my son off at school, because I’m not sure who you call when 911 doesn’t work. I was waiting to cross Georgia Ave. at Farragut St. NW when a man went sprinting crazily across the busy road, dodging cars and weaving all around. This isn’t completely out of the ordinary for Georgia Ave., so I didn’t think much of it at first.

After I crossed, the man emerged from an alley, followed by a Hummer. The man in the Hummer asked what street we were on because he was on the phone with 911. I told him and kept walking toward my house, watching as the man walking in front of me stumbled along the sidewalk as if he’d been hit over the head and shouted nonsense. I then met the man in the Hummer again (he was following the injured or high man until the police showed up), and he asked me to call 911 as well, because he wasn’t sure the operator had understood him.

I tried to call 911 four times–every time a recording came on telling me to stay on the line, but no one ever picked up. I live in north Petworth and I’ve called 911 numerous times; this has never happened to me before. The man (who was either severely injured or severely high) stumbled out of view. Eventually police officers came and asked where he went, but at this point he had long been out of my sight and I have no idea if they found him or what was wrong with him. I also have no idea why 911 was so busy at 9:30 am that no one could pick up one of my four calls.”

Ed. Note: Office of Unified Communications needs to respond to this situation.

32 Comment

  • LOL

    ” I live in north Petworth and I’ve called 911 numerous times”

    Not laughing AT this person, just the grI’m chuckle of a fellow Washingtonian who also knows way too much about 911.

  • This is my biggest issue with the fact that 911 is supposed to be used in DC for all issues. In my opinion, 911 should be reserved for true emergencies and another number like 311 or whatever should be used for minor nuisance or other things. I understand the official policy is to call 911 for most any issue, but I strongly feel this should be changed for instances exactly like this.

    • phl2dc

      +1 – 911 should be used for emergencies ONLY.

      • Accountering

        Well, in DC that is not the case, so please couch that as your opinion, and not as it looks now, as a fact. In DC, 311 is for city services, and 911 is when you need a police response, including parking tickets and the like.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Yes. If you call 311 for police, you will be forwarded to the same place as if you had called 911, thus the end result will not preserve 911 bandwidth.

        • As he was replying to my comment (and he said “should”), I think it was clear that was just his opinion. Everytime this discussion comes up I am just baffled that the policy is to call 911 for everything. It defeats the entire purpose of having an emergency line. 311 should be the unified city hotline for all non-emergcy services (they could patch you through to an appropriate non-emergency policy number if needed) and 911 should be for emergencies. I really wonder if this is the same policy in other cities. Growing up in the 90s in the suburbs of Chicago, it was VERY clear that 911 was only for emergenices.

          • HaileUnlikely

            Although in general I think the passive voice gets a bum rap, I think your use of it in the above introduced legitimate confusion. You could have meant “citizens should only call 911 for emergencies,” or you could have meant “DC should change its policy of using 911 for all police calls including non-emergencies.” The latter is clearly your opinion, but the former could be misconstrued as “citizens are only supposed to call 911 for emergencies,” which is both false and unhelpful (false per DC policy, and unhelpful because if you ask for police and state it’s not an emergency, they just transfer you to 911 anyway)

          • “I really wonder if this is the same policy in other cities. Growing up in the 90s in the suburbs of Chicago, it was VERY clear that 911 was only for emergenices.” I’ve heard of it only in D.C., and even in D.C. it was a fairly recent change — many people are still under the (mistaken) impression that 911 in D.C. is for emergencies only. And the way the OUC dispatches answer the phone reinforces this mistaken impression.

        • phl2dc

          As MtP already stated, I think it’s pretty clear that it was my opinion (because of the “+1”). But yes, it’s my opinion.

          Regardless of what I think, every time I’ve called 911 I’ve been greeted with “911, state your emergency.” So…that makes it sound like it’s for emergencies only.

        • phl2dc


          “If you witness a crime in progress or have an emergency that requires the police, please call 911.
          For non-emergency inquiries or requests, please use the MPD Telephone Directory to locate the contact number.” (http://mpdc.dc.gov/service/hotlines-tip-lines-and-important-numbers)

          http://ouc.dc.gov/page/911-about also provides only emergency situations as examples of when to call 911.
          I’m trying to find an official source that says 911 is for all purposes, so if you have something, please share. Otherwise, I might change my post from saying it was my opinion to saying it is fact: 911 should be for emergencies only, but you can use it for non-emergency calls as well.

          • The MPD website seems to contradict what MPD leaders say on this front. At a community meeting I went to a few months ago, Fourth District Commander Wil Manlapaz (and the lieutenant for my Police Service Area) confirmed that 911 is for all police calls.

          • FWIW, they’ve changed the 311 FAQ on the Office of Unified Communications website. You’ll notice that the “When should I call 911?” question is still at the top of the page, but the answer has been removed. It used to state that any call for police service had to go through 911. It’s possible that they’re shifting away from that model (which is fine with me) but they should publicize it if that’s the case. Or it could just be further evidence that OUC is a mess.


          • phl2dc

            Basically MPD is a mess, surprise surprise.

          • Here’s the press release from when they made the change:
            “311 and 911 are now the only two phone numbers any resident needs to know to get in touch with their government,” said Fenty. “24 hours a day, 365 days a year, District government is accessible to every resident by dialing just three digits.”
            911 will remain as the number to call for all situations that require response from MPD or Fire EMS. The 311 number was previously used for police non-emergencies. By creating 311 as the number to reach the Mayor’s Citywide Call Center and sending all calls requiring public safety personnel response to 911 residents no longer have to worry whether their calls constitute an emergency. Residents can now use the Mayors’ Citywide Call Center to reach any agency in the government, request services such as trash pickup or smoke detector installation and connect directly to agency call centers such as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

          • phl2dc

            Thanks, Anon.
            “What if I dial the wrong number?

            If you call 311 but need police, fire or emergency medical services, you will have the immediate option of being routed to 911. The professionals who answer 311 calls will ensure that you receive the assistance you need no matter which number you dial.”
            I think we need them to state whether ALL calls for police should go to 911, or whether just EMERGENCY police calls should.
            I also think that few people make that distinction because they might associate 911 most closely with the police. So instead of looking up a local number for a police station, they go straight to 911.

  • phl2dc

    This is absolutely insane. No one who calls 911 should ever have to hear a recording before being connected to an operator. This is crazy.

  • Off topic, but is anyone else getting an “Oops! That page can’t be found. ” message when going to page 2?

  • Yeah, everyone called it in 2008 when the city decided to merge all calls to 911. There were a lot of people assuming it would bog down the 911 system, resulting in delays etc, and they couldn’t have been more right.

    I’ve had to call 911 3 times since 2008. Twice I got the recording to hold, and after a minute or so I hung up and had to call multiple times to get an answer.

    The 3rd time I had occassion to call them it worked like it should have.

    I don’t know what the numbers are now, but in 2008 before 311 and 911 were merged, there were just under 1 million calls a year to 911, and another 600K to 311. It didn’t take a genius to see that increasing the call volume to one line by 60% was going to cause problems.

    • I don’t think it’s a matter of “one line,” though; presumably 911 has (or should have) the capacity to handle several incoming calls at once.
      FWIW, I remember calling 911 in Adams Morgan circa 2005 and waiting on hold for two minutes. OUC’s problems might have been compounded when D.C. decided to shift non-emergency police calls to 911, but my understanding is that OUC has had problems for a long time.

      • Accountering

        This… Sounds like OUC just needs to staff up. I think everyone can agree that you should never be placed on hold when calling 911. If this means a few extra staff sitting around waiting, that’s fine with me. When I need 911, I need it now.

  • OUC needs to get its act together.

    • At our ANc meeting this month, I complained about the delay in getting police dispatched for an emergency. The operators seemingly follow a script of several questions, and have you repeat your answers at least twice. On average it seems to take 2-5 minutes before you can actually describe why you need assistance, which often means the situation requiring police has broken up. At any rate, a rep from the mayor’s office informed us that this was one of the reasons the head of the OUC was being replaced in the near future.

  • west_egg

    DC’s 911 operations center is a complete disaster. Nobody anywhere, but particularly in the nation’s capital, should EVER have to be placed on hold in an emergency situation. It’s completely unacceptable. Then there’s the issue of whether someone will actually be dispatched once you do manage to reach someone — there have been more cases than I can count in recent years of EMS being dispatched to the wrong location, or the department has lost track of where their vehicles are, or any number of chaotic and completely avoidable outcomes. It truly is shameful.

  • This happened to me this summer. There was a fire at the end of my street and when I called 911 I was on hold for about 5 minutes until the call was picked up. Absolutely unacceptable!

  • This has happened to me before too – I tried to report gunshots in my neighborhood and after several unanswered calls to 911, I gave up. I can’t imagine how terrifying this would be if there had been a medical emergency.

  • I saw someone get shot on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan 2007/2008. It was a Sunday morning. I called 911 and was on hold forever! I sent one of the kids around the corner to Engine Co. 21 and as he was explaining to the DCFEMS guys what was going on, they got the call from dispatch. Ridiculous.

    Apparently they are staffed at different levels at different times of days/days of week. I suspect at 9:30am on a weekday (as was the case with a Sunday morning), they didn’t have the a big number of staff on the job.

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