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Disturbing Report on the Metropolitan Bike Trail and More Disturbing 911 Response

by Prince Of Petworth September 14, 2016 at 2:50 pm 53 Comments


Yesterday a resident reported, on theBrookland listserv, encountering a man masturbating on the MBT around 11:30am. The following description of the 911 call could be even more disturbing:

“Where are you?”
“RHI metro bridge on the Metropolitan Branch Trail.”
“Oh are you in the metro?”
“By Foreman Mills.”
“What’s the cross street?”
“Rhode Island Ave. I am on the MBT.”
“But where on the MBT.”
“Just south of the 2.1 mile marker.”
“Mam, that doesn’t help me.”
“I thought the whole point of the mile markers was to help us tell you where we are?”
“Where are you again?”
“On the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just by the RHI Bridge Steps across from Foreman Mills.”
“What is the cross street?”
I lost it then. This is redic.
“WHAT IF I WAS BEING RAPED? Could you find me then?”
“I will send someone out there now.”

I am so frustrated, and I feel unsafe.”

I emailed OP this morning who said she heard from the 911 office today and “They are re-training everyone about the MBT.” Given the number of incidents reported on the MBT let’s hope this training is done post haste. And is thorough.

  • S

    just when I start thinking of expanding my runs to the MBT I hear something like this….I guess I will continue to stay off the MBT…sigh…

  • Anon Imus

    I had a VERY similar experience with a 911 operator when I was assaulted on my bike on MBT a little over five years ago. Later they even gave the same BS response about re-training everyone about the MBT. I wouldn’t expect anything to change at this point.

  • Cleveland Park runner

    It’s not just MBT–911 operators seem to have an appalling lack of understanding of the layout of the city. When a tree fell on the commuter a few weeks ago at Rock Creek Pkwy just after the split for Beach and the roads to Connecticut, 911 took forever to send out help because the operator didn’t understand where the callers were because there wasn’t an address.
    As part of job training, operators should drive around the city’s roads and paths to understand where things are. What good is calling 911 if they can’t figure out where things are?

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know if having the operators drive the streets would have the desired effect. Ideally, the operator would have much more detailed information about where the call was coming from.

      Another option would be to start using services like what3words to provide exact locations. Granted, this would require the caller to have the what3words app or website open with the location keyed in, and the operator would have to be plugged into the service as well.

      • textdoc

        Getting an effective 911 response should not require the caller to be using an app or website. Callers should be able to use landlines, dumbphones, pay phones, etc., etc.
        Sure, part of the problem here is the technology (ability to pinpoint locations of cell phone calls). But a BIG, BIG part of the problem is OUC and its dispatchers/their training.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Not only the people and their training but their tools. The person who you talk to is not the dispatcher, the person who takes your call relays the information electronically to the dispatcher (i.e., the person who takes your call does not speak directly to the responding officer). I do not know about the DC OUC system, but many such computerized dispatch systems only take address and intersections as inputs. Points of interest are not valid inputs. That could be changed, but upgrading the system to allow more flexible inputs is well beyond the job of the call takers or the dispatchers.

          • stacksp

            Which is why they reiterate cross streets. One can assume that once they have that information that they comment the confirmed address with the mile marker or landmark information but you raise a good point regarding the input fields. The dispatcher is typing into specific fields that are required for dispatch and escalation to the next level in the tree

    • ke

      I run in RCP and have had the thought that it would be very difficult to describe my location if something happened. Even if I have a strong sense of the trails and directions, that doesn’t mean that someone else would know the area or be able to read a map well enough to locate me.
      I would have thought that being on RC Parkway, like that poor man trapped in a car, would make it a bit easier.

    • anon

      LOL like when I was injured on the grass surrounding the Washington Monument. 911 hung up on us twice since we couldn’t provide an address and I guess they got annoyed.

      • dcd

        I’d have lost my mind. “Big effin’ stone obelisk in the middle of the National Mall!”

        • Ally


  • Anonymous

    Training can’t hurt, though whether the operators can remember what the training entailed over the long term is a big question.

    What do 9-1-1 operators see on their screens when a call comes through? Do they have access to a map? Do they get an approximate location based on cell phone towers or the GPS of the phone (if turned on)? If no, why don’t they have this sort of access? It seems like knowing where someone is – especially if someone doesn’t know that they are near mile marker 2.1 – would be one of the most important things.

    • Anonymous

      +1 especially on 911 operators having access to GPS coordinates. What if I was dazed / in shock? I’m pretty sure most 911 calls are not made from a calm cool and collected state of mind.

    • anon

      +1. Coordinates based on cell signal if available, location services from the smartphone if available. This should exist, and probably does in at least some jurisdictions by now.

    • HaileUnlikely

      I posted a link with detailed information but it has not come through. To summarize, location data is transmitted in two stages. What the industry calls “Phase I” location data is based on the coverage area of the cell tower from which the call originated, and gives them your location to within a few hundred meters. That is transmitted most of the time and is usually not inaccurate but just places you within a quarter-mile radius or so. What the industry calls “Phase 2” location data is based on GPS location, and theoretically provides your location much more precisely, but is transmitted to the 911 operator way less than half of the time and is often wrong.

      • Anonymous

        I read the article and found it interesting, if not disturbing. If Google Maps and Uber can mostly get the location right, how can this be integrated into safety systems? One major issue is that people don’t always have the location feature turned on (Uber requires it to be on), so even if there was an integration between the phone and the 9-1-1 system it wouldn’t help.

    • Some techie

      Cell-tower GPS is going to be a pretty wide circle, even in the city. And GPS data does not get transmitted with phone calls across the switched network which is how you get to 911.

  • Nah, incident is still more disturbing. Someone charged with fixing your problem is rarely as bad as the actual problem itself.

    • Expat

      Isn’t 911 operators’ ability to dispatch law enforcement to the area one of the best ways to prevent future incidents?

      • No. If that guy wanted to get his jollies on the trail there’s no amount of realistic time between calling and dispatching that would prevent him.

        • James W.

          I’ll go out on a limb here and say that a misdemeanor in progress on the bike trail probably wasn’t the biggest crime going on in the District that day. Take a cell phone pic, stop by or e-mail the station, and follow up with a phone call to offer a description of the event. All that said, dispatch does need to do better in locating callers.

        • textdoc

          It’s not so much about prevention as about response. We don’t control who chooses to go to the MBT and commit sex-related offenses, but theoretically as a city we do have _some_ control over the response.

          • I know that, I’m just answering the question as posed by the person. I still attest that a response to something is not as disturbing as the act itself. The only exceptions would be extreme instances where death is on the line and the situation will get worse the longer someone is delayed. Even then, whatever put you in that situation is most likely still more disturbing (a stabbing, house fire, etc), but this isn’t one of those instances.

        • Expat

          What I’m saying is MBT is frequented by runners, cyclists, etc, and also isolated and assumed to have little law enforcement both by criminals and active Washingtonians alike. Improving dispatch times to places like MBT would *hopefully* discourage people in the future from whipping out their junk here. Or maybe I’m too optimistic.

    • Ally

      I think we can count both the response and the incident as disturbing. People prone to masturbating in public have a tendency to escalate to larger, related offenses. So, catching these guys early isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if they just get a slap on the wrist or the .. uh, anyway.

  • Duponter

    It’s insane that you can pin your location on Grindr for a hookup, but the 911 system can’t seem to find you.

    • anon

      If Grindr required local government buy-in, it’d never work.

      • Anonymous

        hah. grindr.dc.gov

  • Pete

    When I called to report a car break in (even though I knew it wouldn’t help, re: getting items stolen back, I still wanted a case number so it had to show in crime stats), even though I gave the closest cross street, the operator insisted I give a specific address on the street I was on – except I was on a stretch of the street with no houses/apartments (Adams Mill Rd NW). I had to walk to the intersection of Adams Mill and Harvard to get the 2900 block number. It’s confusing that the operator in this case was requiring cross streets, when that wasn’t sufficient in my case. Is there not a standard?

    • stacksp

      The standard IS to provide the nearest cross street

      • 911 isn’t awesome sometimes

        I’ve had operators on numerous occasions state they needed a street number and that a cross street was not sufficient. When I’m reporting a shooting on a neighboring street I’d prefer to not have to run down the block to see what the number is, but I’ve had operators refuse to dispatch until they got a number.

        • That has happened to me the last couple of times I have had to call. I gave cross streets and was asked for a specific address multiple times until she would finish the call with me.

    • Anon MPD 8

      Pete,Did they find you and did they catch the guy?

  • 11luke

    The redevelopment in that area really can’t happen fast enough. There definitely is a wasteland element of the Forman Mills shopping center, and weirdly enough crossing that parking lot is the most pedestrian friendly way to get on the MBT or the RI Metro if you are coming from Edgewood or points west.

    • kwame

      outside of the popeyes no real reason to go there.

      • JoDa

        Big Lots and Save A Lot have something to offer. Just this weekend I bought myself some new cookie sheets and a dozen cans of tuna for a song. I don’t think they’re the highest and best use of the land, but I will continue to patronize them until they’re torn down. They also create some foot traffic going back and forth to the Metro, so that helps some, too.

  • bdweller

    I also had a very similar experience with an operator (not on the MBT). I was walking my dog around my neighborhood and a cab jumped the curb, missed me by inches and hit a tree. I was calling 911 to report the accident. The operator asked for my location and I said 1900 block of Park Rd. She said she needed a specific address. I told her I was walking/outside and not at a specific address. She kept repeating that she needed a specific address. I told her I was at the intersection of Park and 19th Street, NW. She repeated her specific address thing AGAIN! I said fine, I’m at 1901 Park Rd. Then she said, ma’am you just gave me 3 different locations. WTF?! I just hung up and thanked god I wasn’t in any sort of danger.

  • ke

    I’m guessing that the operator was trying to figure out the cross streets because the responding units would be arriving via road and have to find the nearest entrance to the MBT. Trying to give the benefit of the doubt…BUT how much training should it really take? I’ve never been on the MBT, but I am aware of its existence and I understand what a mile marker is. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to pass along to the responding units? One would think that the responding units would have an even better grasp on the location based on that information because it’s within their territory.

    • Anonymous

      The operator could open Google Maps, switch to satellite view, and see pretty much everything someone was talking about on the phone. That would require the operator to actually be able to open a browser, which may not be a possibility, and be familiar/clever enough to work backwards from a location to a cross street or specific address.

  • If you haven’t seen it, it is worth checking out John Oliver’s piece on 911 operators. I don’t think this issue is just a problem at MBT or DC. I also think it is something that does desperately need to be addressed. In the meantime, having been in a life threatening situation where 911 could not find me, I always try to make sure I know my location. It’s not always possible to know an exact location, but I do my best to stay alert and note my surroundings.


  • No Bikes

    Neither of these things are surprising to me. I called 911 last Summer to report a situation I observed on my street. All they kept asking was “Do you need an ambulance sir?” over and over again. I was calling because I thought someone else needed help and they couldn’t seem to understand that.

    As a side note, when I did need an ambulance and gave them an exact address, it took them 30 minutes to arrive. So… Good Luck everyone!

  • Eckingtonian

    This is fascinating to me because at the Eckington Civic Association Monday night, the DDOT Trail coordinator said that the Office of Unified Communications (who controls 9-1-1) said that dispatchers HAD already been trained to know mile markers, and have some new tool to communicate locations on the trail to police officers. Apparently this dispatcher had not gotten that training.

  • 911 is broke

    I called 911 to report a person falling onto the ground and having a medical episode of some kind. The operator asked me a dozen questions of limited relevance (eg, asking multiple times how tall the person is), then asked over and over whether anyone had a weapon. LOOK, IT IS THE GUY LYING ON THE GROUND HAVING A SEIZURE! I DON’T KNOW HOW OLD HE IS AND NO WEAPON IS INVOLVED! No ambulance ever showed up.

    Another time I called to report a drug deal and the 911 operator insisted on asking about weapons. I said I don’t see a weapon but they might have one. Then lots of questions about how I know it’s drugs and not something else (popcorn? Beanie babies? I dunno). No cops showed up.

    • Anonymous

      I stopped two officers in Columbia Heights to report a drug deal happening a block from where they were standing (near the Metro). They asked how I knew it was drugs and not something else. Well, you usually don’t see a guy handing out sandwiches in bags in exchange for cash to people who walk up. The officers didn’t go to check it out.

  • Alan Etter

    Yesterday, the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) received two 911 calls for a criminal incident on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT).

    At 11:27 a.m., we received a call from a Metro Transit Police Department officer asking for MPD to respond to the MBT for an individual engaged in criminal activity. MPD units were dispatched at 11:29 a.m. and arrived at the scene at 11:31 a.m.

    Shortly after we received the first call, a second call came in at 11:28 a.m. from another person reporting the same criminal activity on the MBT. Although there was some initial confusion on the part of our call taker during the second call, at no time was there any delay in service and MPD units were already en route to the scene.

    We are reviewing the matter as part of our commitment to improving our 911 services. Because of the unique emergency response challenges posed by the MBT, we worked with agency, neighborhood, and bicycle advocacy partners to install markers every tenth of a mile along the entire MBT. We regularly train our 911 call takers and dispatchers on the MBT, and we’re always seeking to ensure our staff provides excellent service to our callers. For example, we recently established a quality assurance program at OUC to help us better understand how we’re doing and what we need to do to be better. On average, our 911 call takers receive 4,000 calls each day, and each call provides us with a new opportunity to learn and do better. We understand that to each 911 caller, every second matters and that we have no margin for error.

    I appreciate the feedback from our customers when we don’t meet their expectations for excellent service; that is why I am committed to ensuring our call takers provide fast and professional service to every caller who dials 911.

    Karima Holmes, Director
    Office of Unified Communications

    • Ally

      Thanks for the response and clarification!

  • AmyM

    This is how it went the two times I had to report an incident at my old house:

    “I’m at #### 11th St. NW and I need to report a [thing].”
    “Ma’am, where are you?”
    *#### 11th St. NW. In the District.”
    “11th Street…what’s the closest cross street?”
    “It’s right between [X] and [Y] Street.”
    “Okay but what’s the cross street?”
    “[X] or [Y]. Pick one–it’s right between the two.”
    “Ma’am that doesn’t help me.”
    “…[Y], then.”
    “Hold please.”
    [Holding…Holding…thanking God I wasn’t bleeding or hiding from a lunatic]
    “Hello, what’s your emergency?”
    “[Repeating myself for the 11,435th time]”
    “Right…what’s that cross street?”
    “…[Y]. Just put in [Y].”
    “…Okay so you’re on 11th…but which cross street is it, ma’am? And you have to give me a direction! Northeast?”
    “Jesus Christ.”
    “Yeah, ok, imma keep you on the line in case they can’t find you without a cross street.”

    Long story not very short, there’s no winning with DC’s 911 response. This was on the damn grid–I can’t imagine the hell involved in getting a response to an area that doesn’t involve a number and a letter. It feels like they’re actively trained to not think critically about what they’re hearing–common sense would dictate that you need either an address, or a general idea coupled with a cross-street. Nothing computes. (To be fair, the cops knew exactly where I was and had no idea what was wrong with the person handling the dispatch.)

    • Ally

      Starting to think that a course in Pierre L’Enfant might not be such a bad idea for all 911 operators! Sorry you had to go through that.

  • Anon

    Gosh, I sure hope the, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”, operators are better than that!

  • Standard

    I found a 67 year old man bleeding from the head right in front of the PARK POLICE station in RCP (it was closed). Dispatcher seemed utterly confused as I read her every detail of the PARK POLICE station we were in front of. Ambulance finally arrived 31 minutes later.

  • Andy

    We had a similar response when we called about a package theft a few months ago. The person ducked into an alley, which if it has a name I don’t know it. The 911 operator said they needed the name of the alley to send a unit (even though I told them it was the alley on the north side of the street, in addition to providing the two bounding streets). On a separate note do alleys even have names?

  • blindie in NoVA

    thankfully I haven’t had to call 911 and I guess in a way I am glad I don’t live in DC. this is quite frightening as a person with extremely low vision. at best I see 2 feet in front of me (that’s being generous). how would they expect me to see street signs unless I am literally on top of it or an actual number?! It definitely sounds like serious retraining is needed.


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