Billie Shepperd’s voice is cracking every now and then. Her words are laden heavily with emotion. She is straining to contain her anger. Her pain is palpable as she tells me about the death of her daughter Sheila.
I am at one with Billie’s grief — although I have never met her or her daughter. For the second time in as many days, the story strikes deep.
My first expressed sorrow came as I read the article by Adam Bender published in the Communications Daily. It is partly a transcript of the 911 call made on an afternoon in June 2020 by Sheila’s daughter, Maria.
Crying uncontrollably, Maria asked an emergency dispatch operator for help: her 59-year-old mother had chest pains and was partially unconscious. She gave her address — 414 Oglethorpe St. NE. Asked to repeat it, she did so.
Even so, the call operator at the city’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) recorded it as 414 Oglethorpe St. NW. That mistake in quadrants — a 1.5-mile difference — meant emergency responders took at least 21 minutes getting to Sheila; it felt longer to Maria.
Remaining on the phone with the OUC operator, Maria simultaneously called her grandmother, who lives on Connecticut Avenue NW. Billie said she got into her car, driving as fast as was legal, to get to her granddaughter and daughter.
“Do you know how long it will take for them to arrive?” Maria asks the dispatcher, telling her that her mother is “gasping for air.”
“I think she stopped breathing,” she adds.
The OUC operator guides Maria in performing CPR. Eventually, she asks her, “Do you hear them?”
“No,” Maria replies.
The OUC dispatcher never offers Maria any words of comfort. In fact, she never even asked the child’s age. Maria was 13.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Maria to perform the compression technique, minute after minute, hoping to revive her mother? Can you imagine what it must have been like desperately waiting to hear an ambulance siren in the background signaling help had arrived? Can you imagine what thoughts may have gone through Maria’s mind when she later learned that doctors at the Washington Hospital Center essentially pronounced her mother dead on arrival? Can you imagine how it must have agonized her then, and must agonize her still, that she could not save her mother?
That is a traumatic experience that Maria will carry with her all her life. My heart aches.
“[The DC government] failed totally in their duty. [But] for that negligence Sheila (Shelle) Shepperd, mother to my granddaughter, and daughter to me, would be alive,” Billie said. “I don’t believe the wound will ever heal for me or the family.”
It may be hard for some people to focus on one death — not caused by any police officer — or one not caused by COVID-19, when so many thousands of Americans are dying daily. I get that. Many of those deaths should not have occurred.
Sheila’s death should not have happened, either. It is yet another glaring example of government incompetence, part of the continuing saga at the OUC. In his Communications Daily article, Bender noted that staff members at his publication have “listened to and reported on radio traffic of many other incidents over many months involving responders sent to incorrect addresses and other apparent errors that have caused delays in medical and other emergencies.”
Dave Statter, a retired television broadcaster, continues to track the actions of first responder agencies through his blog Statter911. Last year, for example, he was one of the first journalists to raise concerns about the delayed response of the fire department to a house on Kennedy Street NW that was operating as an illegal group home. Two people died in that fire — a 9-year-old boy and an adult male.
“[OUC] has the most impact on our health and safety. Yet there has been less oversight and accountability,” he told me last week after the 911 audio of the Oglethorpe Street NE call became public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Communications Daily.
Asked by a local reporter about the episode earlier this week during one of her coronavirus updates, Mayor Muriel Bowser asserted that “It’s not OK if any of our systems fail. We always investigate the problem and make every effort to fix it.”
However, when pressed about whether there is an internal investigation underway, the mayor told another reporter, “I have to get back to you.” Asked whether she had listened to a recording of the call, she said she wasn’t sure.
Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen is chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which has oversight of the OUC. He called what happened a “really horrible and tragic error,” noting he raised the issue at a public hearing on OUC. “The call taker was disciplined and the whole team went through a retraining.”
Karima Holmes, the OUC’s director, did not respond to my email requests for an interview sent earlier this week. She did not answer my specific questions about what action was taken; what happened to the dispatcher who handled the call; and what areas of improvement or reform she believes may be needed at the agency.
“This incident will also be a part of the ongoing full DC Auditor’s performance review of OUC that I’m supporting,” added Allen.
DC Auditor Kathy Patterson confirmed her office has hired a contractor to examine the work of the OUC. “There’s no excuse for the kind of mistakes that have been alleged, with horrific results, and we expect the audit to establish the facts and recommend solutions,” Patterson told me.
I have great respect for the auditor. However, a report alone won’t cure the kind of lax management that has taken residence at the OUC, despite Holmes’ claims before the council and during a September appearance on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show that “We’ve made great strides.”
Quite frankly, I am sick and tired of political and government spin that professes concern for District residents. Which District residents? Does that include Billie Shepperd and her family now reeling from a death that perhaps could have been prevented had there been a greater level of competence and caring?
Too many people assess the effectiveness of government by how many social programs it implements and funds. That’s important, of course. But what about the hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens — the silent majority: People who live quietly among us, who pay their taxes, attend their churches, stay out of trouble with the law?
The primary role of local government is to provide three basic services: public education, public works and public safety. Indisputably, the DC government continues to perform poorly in each of those areas.
Billie Shepperd worked for years in the DC government. She sent her children, including Sheila, to the city’s public schools and was active in her community. She had a 22-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service working in 48 countries. Her surviving children, now living in Canada and Europe, are making their own contributions to improve society. The one time she asked for anything in return, the government came up short — extremely short.
Adding to that insult, not one person from the government has bothered to send her family a note of condolence in all these many months. After that oversight hearing, Allen didn’t reach out. While Sheila lived not far from Bowser’s parents, the mayor has not stopped in on Shepperd to offer words of comfort.
If someone had apologized, “I could find some small forgiveness,” Shepperd told me. “It’s unconscionable.”
On Tuesday, under pressure from reporters, Holmes did issue a written statement in which she offered “my sincere apology to the family for our call-taker’s error.” She added that the family’s “experience with our 911 system at the point of their most urgent need was not in keeping with our commitment to callers and District residents.”
I am unimpressed. It took her nearly 170 days to show some sensitivity and decency. The apology came well after the council oversight hearing and after the radio appearance where Holmes attacked Statter, criticizing his reporting about her agency. And the apology came only after the public airing of the agency’s abject failure, embarrassing questions to the mayor, and Shepperd’s heartbreaking broadcast interviews.
Interestingly, there wasn’t any delay in the District government sending Shepperd a bill in the amount of $800 for the ambulance service. “We have to pay for this? We pay so many taxes already in DC.
“I was furious when it came,” Shepperd told me. “It took me until October to take care of it. There is a small balance left.”
It isn’t too late for District officials to try to do right by Shepperd. They should at least reimburse her money. She shouldn’t have to pay twice for the city’s failure. The death of her daughter, of Maria’s mother, was already far too high a price.
This article was first published on TheDCLine.org