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Bowser announces pick to run D.C.’s beleaguered 911 call center



After D.C. officials said they were undertaking a nationwide search for a new leader for the city’s mistake-prone 911 call-taking center, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced Friday that she is promoting the center’s deputy director, Heather McGaffin, to the top job.

“We have conducted our interviews and I’m very confident we have a great leader in Heather,” Bowser (D) said at a news briefing at which she introduced three new appointees to cabinet-level posts in her administration. McGaffin, who became the No. 2 official in the city’s Office of Unified Communications a year ago, will have the title “acting director” pending D.C. Council confirmation.

The oft-criticized OUC has been plagued by failures, including delays in dispatching, erroneous addresses entered into systems and miscommunications about the severity or type of calls. In July, for instance, firefighters were sent to the wrong address for a newborn in cardiac arrest, and a month later they were delayed in responding to a 3-month-old boy who had been left in a car.

Pressed by reporters Friday about the extent of the search for a new director of the center, the mayor declined to discuss other candidates.

“I’ve had an opportunity to talk to people who are inside the agency, outside the agency and people who have questions about the agency,” Bowser said. “What they want is a person who knows 911 from the inside out, from dispatching calls to training staff to supporting staff — and even, if necessary, to disciplining staff. And that is the leader we have in Heather.”

McGaffin, who has worked in emergency communications for two decades, rose from dispatcher to deputy director in the 911 system in Calvert County, Md., before becoming a consultant with a national public-safety advisory firm in 2015, the mayor’s office said. She joined the OUC in 2020 as chief of special operations and investigations and became deputy director last February.


“We have work to do,” McGaffin said at the news briefing, without being specific. “And we’re going to do that work. And we’re going to be strong in the work we do, and we’re going to be transparent and accountable in that work.”

Last year, a man died in March after dispatchers misclassified a 911 call as nonurgent. In the fall, a woman testified at a council hearing that mistakes at the call center delayed an ambulance for her daughter as her young granddaughter tried to perform CPR. In September, D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson issued a sharp critique of the agency, saying leaders had failed to fully implement most of the auditing office’s year-old recommendations for improvements.

In the wake of those failures, Bowser’s previous choice for OUC director, Karima Holmes, withdrew her name from consideration in December, the night before council members were scheduled to vote on her nomination. Holmes, who had been interim director since March, appeared to have lost the support of the head of the council’s public safety committee and the council chairman.

Holmes’s supporters said she had been judged unfairly based on a handful of errors amid 1.4 million 911 calls made in the city each year. But critics said the mistakes revealed systemic problems in the agency.

Asked how she plans to restore confidence in the OUC, McGaffin said, “We’re going to put together a comprehensive plan that we’re going to share out over the next couple of months,” but she declined to say exactly what the plan might include.

“We’ll look at everything holistically,” she said. “I don’t think I can stand here today and say there is any one thing. When we have our priorities, we will make those known.”

Source: Washington Post


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