Before a siren blares or an ambulance arrives, 911 operators are the first, first responders. Now we are relying on these operators and dispatchers to coordinate emergency response during a national crisis. In this episode, listeners will meet Karima Holmes, Director of the Office of Unified Communications for the District of Columbia. Director Holmes oversees the city’s emergency 911 operations and she is working to protect the District’s 700,000 residents and 20 million annual visitors.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. I'm Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, and this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.
Right now we're living through so much change and so much upheaval in our daily lives as a result of the coronavirus. So many of us are at home and relying on technology and communications like never before, and that's for telework, telehealth, tele-education, and so much more. We're taking care of each other, our families, our children, and our communities by staying at home.
While the future is so uncertain, I'm finding hope in those who are helping lead us through this crisis. That's, of course, the doctors and nurses who are on the front lines, as well as the grocery workers making sure the shelves are stocked and food is available. Also the folks that are cleaning and sanitizing our remaining public spaces. That includes the communications workers who are keeping our essential networks up and running, and of course, the first responders and 911 operators who are helping coordinate emergency response.
So I'm really honored to be joined by one of the women who's doing that today, and that is Karima Holmes. She's the Director of the Office of Unified Communications for the District of Columbia. As Director, she oversees the city's emergency 911 and non-emergency activities that protect Washington, D.C.'s 700,000 residents and, get this, 20 million annual visitors.
It’s a big job so I want to get started and hear from her directly so she can talk to us about how she got started in public safety, but, first let me just say, Director Holmes, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and being with us here today.
MS. HOLMES: Thank you for having me, I’m excited.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, okay so let’s start at the beginning I like to roll back. How did you get to this job? I mean I know you’ve worked in public safety and 911 in other states but tell us what brought you to public service and how you eventually made it to the nation’s capital.
MS. HOLMES: Sure. So I started my career -- I was actually a freshman in college about 20 years ago, and I was just looking for a job, honestly, with benefits. I was working in a department store at the time, and so I went down to the city and I found this job that was called communications officer. I had no idea what it was, but I knew I qualified for it. I had the background.
So I applied for this position, and I found out that it was a 911 call taker in Augusta, Georgia, which is where I'm from. I started the job. I went through the training, and I absolutely fell in love with it. At the time, I was a biology major. I, to this day, do not know why. I was really good at science, but I didn't know where that was going to take me. I actually changed my major to criminal justice, because I fell in love with the whole 911 and police and fire and EMS.
I ended up going through undergrad and grad school at the Augusta 911 Center. I was still there. I was a call taker, moved up to dispatch. I was a shift supervisor for a couple of years, got into quality assurance, training. After grad school, I was ready for leadership. I just kind of put my portfolio out there. There was a couple of positions across the states for 911 directors, 911 managers. I fell into a great position in Dallas, Texas.
It was Dallas County, Texas. It was three suburban cities right outside of Dallas in a regional 911 center. And so regional 911 centers were pretty new then. This was around 2011, 2012. I was the Director of the Southwest Regional Communications Center, which was the 911 center for DeSoto, Duncanville, and Cedar Hill, Texas. I did that for a little over three years, and then in 2016 at the tail-end of Mayor Muriel Bowser's first year in office, I was brought here to D.C., which was awesome.
I had never thought that I would end up in Washington, D.C., but I took the position in 2016. It has been absolutely wonderful since then. I have never -- I will add, it's been wonderful, but I have never been this busy in my life. So I'm here, I have been here for four -- I hit four years in January, and I am the director here for about 400 employees. We handle 911 and 311 for the District.
We get about three and a half million calls a year. We have -- we're responsible for the radio infrastructure and all 10 radio sites that are spread out across the District.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, 911 has -- it's, like, invisible to so many people because it might be the most important call you ever make, but hopefully you don't have to make that call. But there you have all these folks who are answering these calls. And you described doing this in Georgia, doing this in Texas, but now in the nation's capital. You know, there are so many jurisdictions here, federal authorities.
We've got Virginia on one side, Maryland on the other, the District in the center. I just have to imagine that level of coordination for public safety response is totally unique. I'd just love it if you'd tell us a little more about that.
MS. HOLMES: Oh, sure. It is unique, and I would like to say that it's even model. I think that years ago, definitely in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s, everything was so siloed. All jurisdictions, they did their own thing. For instance, when I was in Augusta, Georgia, we were still speaking in 10-codes. I know you guys hear police say 10-4, you know, the 10-9s. Yeah, I did it too.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It sounds like the movies from like a decade ago, right?
MS. HOLMES: Exactly, yes. I could probably still say a full sentence in just using 10-code. Well, my city would have a set of 10-codes, and the city next to me would have a totally different language.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my goodness.
MS. HOLMES: Yes, and so when I was in actually my -- I was one year in into 911 and 9/11 happened. One of the big things that came out of the 9/11 Commission was communications, right?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. HOLMES: You had different boroughs and different responders coming into New York City and different areas, and we really couldn't talk to each other. So what has happened since then is regionalization, right. We all share information.
Information sharing, we're regularly meeting, and so it's really unique here, but I don't think that's it's not going to be the standard. I think we're heading to that standard that we have the National Capital Region. We call it the NCR. And so for instance ---
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, yes.
MS. HOLMES: --- yes, I am the Vice-Chair for the 911 Directors Committee and COG, and you have these separate committees for just about every piece of governmental division or governmental entity you have. So you have the police chiefs, the fire chiefs. You have finance and the city administrators.
We actually are pretty cohesive in most of our protocols of our operations. We keep up with each other. We're talking across boards, where whenever a big policy happens, something happens, say inauguration -- or the first week I was here, we had Storm Jonas hit. I was really happy because I had this support system, right? There's about 22 jurisdictions that make up the NCR, and there's 14 911 centers that service them. And so --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wait, 22 different jurisdictions make up the National Capital Region?
MS. HOLMES: Oh yes. That's 22 jurisdictions across obviously D.C., and then Maryland and Virginia -- Northern Virginia.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow.
MS. HOLMES: And so -- yeah, and so we really have a good relationship. Internally, just in Washington, D.C., I was really happy to see the cohesiveness and the relations between the local government -- which is us, D.C. -- and then the federal government. There's about 27 different law enforcement agencies that operate out of this --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So then on top of those 22 local jurisdictions, you have 27 different federal entities that have public safety responsibilities?
MS. HOLMES: Oh yes, oh yes. Then when you start getting across to the Smithsonian’s, you know, we have obviously Park Police, Secret Service, all of that works cohesively, and I -- and it works.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah.
MS. HOLMES: This is my first time ever being in something so saturated with different jurisdictions, with, you know, different entities, but they actually are very cohesive. In my building, a separate department that works here, is D.C.'s Homeland Security and Emergency Management. That's our local branch, but we're constantly having the national Homeland Security.
I have meetings where I'm a part of our interoperability communications committees. So there's all this conversation that constantly goes on, either prepping for things like, unfortunately, COVID that we're going through now, or just prepping for everyday events. Protests or any type of movements, if we have something like the G-20 Summit. We're working together and it actually works. What we've found is we actually have more in common than we have opposites.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, what's amazing is that when it works well, this is all invisible to people, but the amount of coordination behind the scenes is really epic. It's something to behold.
MS. HOLMES: A lot of movement.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: A lot of movement. All right, so let's just point out, you mentioned you came with the city mayor after the end of the first year of her first term.
MS. HOLMES: Yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And that mayor, like so many others around the country, is telling everyone to stay home.
MS. HOLMES: Stay inside.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. How does that impact 911 at this moment? You have a city -- we're not frozen, but like lots of other places, there's a lot less movement. But I don't think that slows the calls to 911, does it?
MS. HOLMES: So funny you should say that. It actually does, Commissioner, but I'll tell you why.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay.
MS. HOLMES: So --- and this happens with most large events or catastrophic events. What happens is the amount of people calling 911, for instance -- we'll use the virus since we're in it now. The amount of people calling 911 that are sick or don't feel well and things like that, those things stay and they do sometimes creep up a little when you have, obviously, a pandemic that we're going through, but the other type of calls drop.
So for instance, you don't have as many people on the highway, so you don't have as many accidents. Yeah, you don't have businesses open, so you don't have as many thefts. You don't have people around each other as much, so you don't have too many arguments or, you know, some type of discrepancy over a parking space and things like that, because people are indoors.
And so I was on a webinar maybe about two weeks ago with other 911 directors or managers across the states, all the way to California. And the majority -- I would say about 95 percent of them had reported lower 911 calls, and it's because you don't have as many people out. That's a tough term, but that's a good thing for when you're going through something like this, because people are staying indoors. So you do have less calls because the busyness is not there.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know what it does tend to reflect is that we are abiding by those stay-at-home orders, if you're hearing less of that. But now, does this affect the personnel that work and answer these calls, too?
MS. HOLMES: Right. So we are essential personnel, so we -- our shifts and everything stayed the same. Everyone comes in. I have not -- and I have talked to other 911 centers, we do not have a dip in our personnel now. There are centers that if they have personnel that maybe have been exposed to the virus and they're quarantined, that they're out, but those numbers are not dramatic.
Unfortunately, I did read that our sister city, Detroit's 911 center did have a 911 call taker that succumbed to the complexity of this virus. And that really -- you know, that was hard to think about. But overall, no. Our staffing is up. Our employees understand that they're essential employees. They understand that they're the first first responders.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right, right.
MS. HOLMES: So yeah, they're showing up, they're here.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, so this is neat, because you're talking really about this extraordinary nationwide network. I mean, there are about 6,000 911 call centers across the country. That you're all in contact and that you're sharing best practices as we migrate through this crisis, I mean, what are you learning from your peers across the country who are dealing with this right now?
MS. HOLMES: Sure. So I am also -- there's this organization called the National Association of State 911 Administrators. I'm the D.C. rep, being that I'm from the 911 center in D.C. But there are state-level reps across all 50 states, the territories and us. But we talk. Also so what we're hearing is that the staffing is not an issue. And I honestly -- you know, 20 years in, I didn't expect that to be an issue. I've been involved in different high-profile cases and people come to work.
911 call takers are very dedicated. They understand that this is what we signed up for. They come to work and I'm really proud about that. I think our biggest concern is the mental toll. I know across the United States -- and quite frankly, across the world of public safety -- in recent years we've really been focusing on mental health of our first responders, whether it's 911 call takers or police, fire and EMS, because we deal with these things every day.
If you think about it, an individual usually only deals with something dramatic once or twice in their lifetime. You have 911 call takers and our first responders, we deal with it every day. It may not be personal, but we hear those cries. We're talking to those mothers that a child may be choking on something and you're trying to get her to do the Heimlich. Those type of things we deal with all day every day, and so we're really conscious as the leadership, as an industry, on our mental health.
For instance, I'm at work. I'm not teleworking. I try and spend less time here just for social distancing, but I'm not teleworking. But I am also part of this community, and I go home, I take care of my mother, who's in her 60s. I have a 13-year-old son that's an acute asthmatic. So not only do I come and I'm here and I'm, you know, making sure that our residents are safe and the type of services I'm having for them -- or we have for them stays consistent. I also have to think about my house, I think about my home.
I have to also stand in line out front of the grocery store to make sure I get groceries for my home. We think about that for our call takers, and so that's been a big talk about it. The different entities I spoke to earlier, whether it's NASNA, the National Capital Region call group, I'm talking to them weekly. We're on conference call, we're sharing ideas. We're talking about our staffing, what's working, what's not working.
I think what's really important right now is just having that camaraderie and just having some type of outlet or someone else to touch on. You know, I wanted to try this, is it working for your center? We're doing that, we're having that conversation.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's so good to know, because, you know, before a whistle blows, an ambulance races or a fire engine roars down the street, before you get to any of that, the first touch point with public safety is probably with a 911 operator. The one thing that occurs to me through all of this is that in Washington, the Office of Management and Budget characterize those 911 call takers as clerical workers.
I really hope that this crisis just proves how essential they are in coordinating public safety response. They need to be characterized that way. When we come out of this on the other side and you're still there, and all your people who are answering those calls are still there, I really hope that's a change we can make.
It's always been apparent to me that these folks are doing a lot more than clerical work. I really hope that Washington categorizes them more accurately going forward.
MS. HOLMES: Oh my goodness. Oh yes, Commissioner. I'm so glad you brought that up. So Congresswoman Torres out of California has the 911 SAVES Act.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know, she's the only former 911 operator in Congress. I visited where she used to work at 911 in California with her. She walked around that place like a boss. She knew everything. She had so many stories to tell, how she facilitated public safety response. They will ultimately make you angry and awed, but when you see the magnitude of what she coordinated to make sure people were safe. Then you realize there are people who do this every day.
MS. HOLMES: Every day.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Washington is going to have to fix this and make sure that you are described in a way that reflects what your duties really involve.
MS. HOLMES: Oh yes, I completely agree. I think that, you know, it's not just cliché. We're not just saying we're the first first-responders. We really are the first first-responders. There was a study -- and I wish I could quote or give you who done it -- but I remember they were talking about that these calls come in, they're heightened. The 911 call taker takes the call.
There's a great --- there's a majority of the time -- and I don't know the exact percentage -- that the 911 call taker actually calms the situation before the officers get there. When someone calls 911 -- I can still hear screams from when I was a call taker of people calling and me having to calm them down just to get an address. And so I think right now -- definitely right now, there's no better time to demonstrate the seriousness and the necessity of our profession, because it is a profession.
We really want to make sure that these things are thought through what we're doing. We're dealing with not only the lives of the caller, but we're responsible for those fire, those EMS, our police officers that's going out, making sure we're getting the information that they need, so when they go out, they're protected or they're prepared for whatever's going out there. And we are --- all of that meets right in our emergency communications.
We're doing what we do, we're steadfast in it. We're trained, certified, and we're really passionate about what we do. We answer the call, and it's huge.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I know.
MS. HOLMES: Yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: We're in total agreement, so you're making this so easy. But I do hope we take this crisis and we make another effort to fix that. Now I know, even before we got to this moment, that when it comes to communications, you've made a lot of improvements to Washington's 911 operations. Given that technology is changing so fast and thinking about how people use technology is changing, I'd love to know what some of those improvements are.
MS. HOLMES: Oh, sure. So one of the things when I came in -- obviously, before I took the position, I researched this agency like a news reporter. You know, I Googled it to death. And I read a lot of --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, that's a good instinct. Don't apologize. That's what you should do.
MS. HOLMES: Right, right. I would say Dallas was pretty smooth. The volume of calls wasn't so high, and, you know, it was easy. But I was like, you know what, I'm going to take on this challenge. When I started reading up on the agency, there was a lot of negativity about the 911 call takers in D.C., and how things were handled and their response times.
I remember thinking to myself, there's no way that there's 400 employees coming to work every day and just like, I'm going to do my bare minimum. I just know, working with people every day that no, you don't get into this job just for fun. So when I came in, I realized that no, that there was two things that was missing here.
The public just did not have a grip on what happens in a 911 center, how we operate. It wasn't anyone's fault other than there just needs to be more outreach. Then the other piece of that was I remember looking for the training department, and there was a training person. I was like, there's one person for the entire agency? That fell on an administration before Mayor Bowser. I went to her and we sat down, and she was like, what do we need to do?
I was like, we need training. We need a training department. She was completely supportive. She gave me the resources I need. They were short-staffed. She gave me the positions we needed. We up-staffed the entire 911 center. I created an Office of Professional Standards and Development, which was really just responsible for training, quality assurance and employee development.
We got that kicked off the ground. The employees who were burnt out, they were no longer burnt out because now we had more people on the floor to answer the phones. So when your shift was up, you could get up and leave and not be worried about staying longer. Then we trained them up. We had continuing education that we put out, and that has helped.
One or two of the other things that we did was, there was no -- there was not a non-emergency number, so you called 911 for everything. We did have 311 for city services, but it wasn't something if you just needed to get your case number, or find out who the officer was that handled your case. So we implemented a non-emergency number, which helped relieve some of the calls that came into 911 for true emergencies.
We partnered with our fire and EMS service to integrate a nurse triage line for medical calls that weren't true emergencies. We know our population, sometimes you don't know. If you're a new mother, you don't know if that runny nose is a runny nose or you need an ambulance. So we integrated partnering with our fire and EMS service a nurse triage line, where there are nurses in my agency, on the floor with my call takers, and they take lower priority calls.
They're able to triage the calls and decide whether or not -- let the person know, you're okay, you can take this, or I'm going to send an ambulance out to you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That training is so important, because the technology is just going to continue to evolve.
MS. HOLMES: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: We're going to move from just making a call to Next-Generation 911 when those calls could come with video images, all sorts of things. So to me, this is a job and a profession that is going to grow much more complex over time, because digitization is going to change, the information we can pass along for emergency response, and you're going to have to sort through so many more things going forward.
MS. HOLMES: Oh my goodness, yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: One of the ways I like to close this out is to ask a few questions.
MS. HOLMES: Okay.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I want you to think back -- think way back, like probably when you were in Augusta, Georgia back. I want to ask you what's the first thing you did on the Internet?
MS. HOLMES: The first thing I done on the Internet -- so I have a bad memory, but I can tell you the first thing I remember. I remember --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: We'll take it, we'll take it.
MS. HOLMES: Okay, good. I remember playing SimCity, where you create your -- I don't know if was on AOL Online. I can't remember, but I remember my brother and I, we had different cities that we built up.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my goodness, and now you work for a city. Look at that. It's like there was something predictive in all of that, right?
MS. HOLMES: Yes. I do remember playing that game, SimCity, and I remember the little AOL guy that walked across the screen while you were waiting on the connection to pick up.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, yes.
MS. HOLMES: That's what popped into my head.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right, what's the very last thing you did on the Internet before joining us today?
MS. HOLMES: The last thing I did on the Internet before joining you was I looked on coronavirus.dc.gov to look at the stats for my city with the coronavirus.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's both fair and timely. Thank you for that. All right, so let's -- just try to imagine now, given how you know how technology is changing emergency response, what do you think the future of digital and Internet life and emergency response might look like?
MS. HOLMES: So you know what? We have a snapshot of what that would look like, and we call it Next-Gen 911. And so I'll stick to my industry about what that would look like, and that would look both rewarding and scary for us. The industry is evolving into Next-Generation 911, and we're really just catching up to the 21st Century. We're going from a world that was not digital, and we would only take calls and we were only able to handle emergencies by voice, and so that is changing where now, video, location accuracy will all come into the 911 center and then we will be able to share that with first responders. Now I say that is both rewarding and scary. I say it's rewarding because it's needed and it's obvious, right?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. HOLMES: It would be great for an officer to be able to see that scene before he gets there. It would be great for an officer to actually see the picture of the wanted person before he walks into some type of raid, right? We could share that with them. The scary part of it is, in 911, we've been brought up that we didn't have to see it, right?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah.
MS. HOLMES: We only had to hear it, get the communication between the caller, put that communication in words that we can give it out to our first responders, and hang up. Now our call takers will be exposed. We are now going to be able to see things and have a more detailed description and detailed visual on whatever our responders are going out to.
I think we're okay with sharing that burden, but I do think that, at the same time, it is a little different than what we're used to now. So we're just really getting ready to prep for that.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Here, here. And that's why the training you put in place is so important, and it's why also making sure that the Office of Management and Budget characterizes this work as public safety is so important. So I'm hoping for that for the future, too.
I want to thank you, Director Holmes, for joining us today. Before we go, where can folks follow you and keep up with what you're doing in Washington and for 911 nationally?
MS. HOLMES: Sure. So we have our Twitter handle, which is 311dc.gov. We have OUC_DC, also on Twitter. I'm on LinkedIn, Karima Holmes, and we're out there. We're really excited. Commissioner, before I leave, I want to switch hats right quick and thank you. I'm also a part of the FirstNet Board. I'm a board member since last year. I do want to thank you because you remember coming across something or having a conversation with someone, and I was told that Commissioner Rosenworcel -- I've been working on your name --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I appreciate it.
MS. HOLMES: No problem. I have a name, too, so people work on my name. But I did want to thank you because I know that you were a key component in the legislation getting passed years ago for FirstNet. So I did want to just thank you for that with my board member hat on.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, thank you. There's no more important communications than public safety communications. Thank you for what you have done for public safety in the past, and also right now during this crisis. We really appreciate you spending some time with us today. Thanks.
MS. HOLMES: Thank you.