Washington DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) operates in a unique emergency response environment. The nation’s capital, which is home to over 700,000 residents, welcomes 2.5 million weekday commuters and 20 million visitors annually. All told, DC’s 9-1-1 system receives 1.5M calls a year, including many from tourists who may not be familiar with street names or even speak English.
Here at RapidSOS, we’re thrilled to partner with OUC to enable enhanced caller location accuracy for iPhones and Androids and emergency data from Uber through the RapidSOS Clearinghouse.
Our team recently travelled to Washington DC to see how the OUC is using data through their integration with the RapidSOS Clearinghouse to respond to emergencies. We interviewed Karima Holmes, Director of the OUC, about how her agency is implementing the technology. With 20 years spent in public safety and experience managing the capital’s nuanced 9-1-1 system, she brings a unique perspective to emergency response technology.
You can watch the video and read the full-interview below for more insights on sharing data with first responders in the field, adopting new PSAP technology, training telecommunicators, and more.
Interview Transcript with Karima Holmes, Director of the Office of Unified Communications
Q. Can you talk about your career in public safety?
A. I’ve been in public safety for about 19 years now. I started out in a call center in Augusta, Georgia as a call taker and dispatcher. I moved into training. I did Quality Assurance, and after I finished grad school I decided to put my portfolio out there and see who would catch me. I ended up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas where I was a director for a regional 9-1-1 center there for about four years. We covered three cities in that area. That was very rewarding!
I came here to DC in 2016 as the director of the Office of Unified Communications. My undergrad degree is in Criminal Justice and my graduate school degree is in Public Administration with a focus on Homeland Security. I made a career out of it!
Q. Can you talk about Washington, DC? Its population, 9-1-1 calls, etc.
A. Washington DC is obviously unique on all four corners, literally. We have a population of over 700,000 this year, but we have an influx of two and a half million potential callers Monday-through-Friday. DC is the seat of the federal government. We also have 20 million visitors a year, so that makes us really unique.
We actually ran some data and found out that, based off of a population of 700,000, we bring in five times more 9-1-1 calls than any other jurisdiction. It’s because of the influx of visitors and our federal partners. We are responsible for police, fire, and EMS. We coordinate with about 27 outside law-enforcement agencies. That involves the Park Police, Capitol Police, the Secret Service, among others. DC is in the National Capital Region, which is comprised of 22 jurisdictions and 14 9-1-1 centers.
Q. What made you decide to integrate with the RapidSOS Clearinghouse?
A. Our mission here is to provide accurate, professional, and expedited service. The RapidSOS Clearinghouse is helping us to meet this mission in several ways. Location accuracy has been a struggle since I’ve been in this career and I’m really proud that there’s an entity that has taken this on and has been able to feed this information into the 9-1-1 center.
One of the struggles I’ve always had when I’m talking to the community is “Why don’t you guys know where we are?” My response has always been that we want to know where you are too, but unfortunately because of our technology and the infrastructure in the way 9-1-1 was built, that’s not something that we could control. And it’s not something that we are technically responsible for.
Location accuracy is key to saving lives, therefore having this RapidSOS Clearinghouse be the conduit for us is a big win. I think the entire industry has been watching this. RapidSOS has me and my IT team’s full support. I’ve been keeping up with the updates, and so I think it was just a no-brainer to go live with it.
Q. What is the significance to the 911 community of Apple and Google making location data available through RapidSOS?
A. Having Apple and Google make location data accessible to 9-1-1 is huge. Location is the most important thing we receive on a 9-1-1 call. Historically not having it has been a real struggle.
I listen to 9-1-1 calls all the time, and for about 40 seconds of the first part of a call we’re trying to figure out where the caller is. So, when we’re able to actually help the caller narrow down and say, “Well I show you’re here” and let the caller say, “I think that’s where I am,” that’s very important. Now we can get into the other questions, right? “What’s going on? Is the suspect still there?”
And it not only shaves time off, it helps to streamline the interaction between the caller and the call taker. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to calls and the caller gets frustrated, because they assume we know where they are. Being able to have something aid my telecommunicators to get that very first question that we ask, “Where are you?”, is huge.
Q. What do you think the benefit of this integration is for citizens and visitors?
A. Having that benefit here for the citizens and the visitors of DC is probably twofold. The first part of it is that 80% of our calls are cellular, so location does not always come up on our ANI/ALI screen. We don’t know where you are, so having this information available where we can pinpoint where you are and to be able to verify your location with you is priceless.
The other part of it is, a great deal of the people that call 9-1-1, don’t live here! They don’t know what street they’re on. I’ve actually heard calls when people call us and say, “I’m near a museum.” You’re in DC, there’re lots of museums. Being able to help pinpoint and say, “Well ma’am I see that you’re on M Street, can you look up and verify that’s where you are?” – it will be huge for us.
Q. How impactful do you think this solution can be for emergency response and how would you measure the impact of that?
A. I have a full-time data analyst. She crunches numbers. We will be able to see the impact of whether or not this is making a difference. I will tell you that my CIO and my IT team have already started testing it. They’ve already gone out in the field, made the phone calls, called in and said, “Where am I?”, and it works. We’re completely amazed.
Earlier today I was at lunch with my Chief Information Officer. He said, “Karima, it was great! I went out to my son’s school. I call back into the center, took a picture of my cellphone, and it was the exact location.” I really don’t think there would be a problem with measuring the impact.
I go out to community meetings all the time and one of the biggest things that I have to discuss is location accuracy. I would really like to look at the quality assurance portion of it, and see how the calls flow better, how it’s helping my callers.
Then of course there are the first responders – our police and fire colleagues – being able to get the call in faster and dispatch the call quickly means all the difference. Fire and EMS or police, if they go out and the location is not correct, then they’re calling back, and we’re having to call the caller back. Hopefully not only will we see the impact here in the agency, we would see it spill over to our responders.
Q. What are some scenarios you can anticipate where location from RapidSOS would help transform the outcome potentially?
A.I mentioned earlier that we have a lot of federal partners. We work with the Secret Service and Capitol Police, for example. There are times individuals call and there are certain parts of the city that our police department doesn’t have jurisdiction over. Those areas fall under the federal government. But if someone calls 9-1-1, they don’t know where they are. We enter the closest location where we think they are based on their description. If first responders can’t find the caller, my call takers have to call the caller back.
That is a lengthy process that location accuracy will hopefully shorten. Now when you call, we will know your location, see that you’re on the Capitol grounds somewhere. With a few clicks, we can quickly engage the Capitol Police, and they can respond.
I know sometimes that there’s a big issue with training. Well, we got our training done in a couple weeks. I have 400 employees, and we got our training in a couple of weeks.
I will tell you that I work in a union environment. We cannot bring anything out to our call takers without making sure that it is tight, making sure that it is what it says it is. So far, my call takers have brought very positive feedback. The RapidSOS integration is very easy for them. It’s a familiar screen and a familiar pop-up and that’s very important.
In our world and in the 9-1-1 industry, anytime we see something new we’re really cautious of it because we deal with people’s lives. Based on the experience I’ve had with the integration with the RapidSOS Clearinghouse, I’ve seen that it’s very accurate, and I feel very confident in it.
Ready to receive fast, accurate mobile caller location from iPhones and Androids in your PSAP? You can sign up for our secure web-based tool, RapidSOS Portal, with no cost and no commitment. Get started today at RapidSOSPortal.com.