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Washington, DC's 911 dispatch system beset by delays and malfunctions

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Washington, DC, has a new 911 dispatch system and it's not working. Late last year, tablets were installed in ambulances and firetrucks. But instead of boosting efficiency, the system has been malfunctioning almost every day. Following the death of an 18-month-old boy who choked on a grape, an investigation revealed that dispatchers alerted an ambulance about a mile away, instead of a unit closer to the toddler's home.

The Washington Post reports that a major glitch in the dispatch system seems to make some units invisible to dispatchers. When the computer system loses 4G connectivity or switches from 4G bands to WiFi, the unit can go offline. The drop leaves dispatchers blind to the updated position of the unit and unable to spot the one closest to a distress call.

This isn't the first time DC has noted a delayed response to an emergency. In the last four months, the tablet system has significantly spiked first responder delays. Since its installation, firefighters' technical support calls multiplied 800 percent and ambulance wait times increased from 6.5 minutes to eight minutes.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser's team maintains that 911 is still a reliable call, but the recurring incidences have spurred the office to take action. The district's chief technology officer has identified 19 problems in the system and 11 of those have already been fixed. But until the system is fully functional, all ambulances will be switching back to old-school radio communications to ensure units closest to an emergency are dispatched.

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