The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


911 dispatchers not aware of Metropolitan Branch Trail

A group of young men tried to push a cyclist off his bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail yesterday. When he called 911 to report the incident, the dispatcher seemed unable to enter the incident into the database because the trail isn't a "street".

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Brookland resident Laura reported on the MPD 5th District community listserv,

My husband has started riding his bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail between Brookland and downtown. Yesterday evening around 6:30pm a group of 6-8 young men were gathered along the trail in the area between the NY Ave Metro and Rhode Island Ave Metro, and attempted to push him off his bike. He was riding fast, so they weren't able to do it, and fortunately nothing else happened.

However, he called MPD to report it, and felt like they weren't aware of the trail or where it was. At one point he was transferred to Park Police, presumably because of the "trail" part, and then back to MPD, who didn't seem sure what part of town he was talking about.

I thought I'd post this incident here, to make sure there's awareness of the trail, and also the probable need for more police presence on it so bikers, walkers and commuters can feel safe using the trail.

A long-standing weakness in DC's 911 service is its reliance on having a precise address to enter incidents in the database. In 2001, confusion over the address of the FDR memorial delayed emergency responders by 30 minutes. Residents of residential alleys also report having trouble getting police service.

DDOT's Heather Deutsch said that DDOT is looking into ways to get the trail into the 911 database, perhaps even by coding it as a "street" not open to motor vehicles. The trail has solar-powered lighting (which isn't the oxymoron it sounds like at first), but until the trail develops a heavier usage, it would help for MPD to patrol it and, most of all, to ensure that any problems reported can be quickly located and passed along to officers.

Update: MPD's Lamar Greene followed up to say:

The Fifth District officers are aware of the trail and have begun patrolling the trail as a part of our normal duties, unfortunately the trail is secluded and I recommend utilizing a buddy system when traveling through the area. Unfortunately, we have made several arrests on the trail already for various disorderly issues that have been observed.
And Lieutenant Christopher Micciche wrote, "If the need to call 911 arises, please refer to the nearest cross-street and the railroad tracks." In the past, at least, some have reported problems getting crime reports filed without precise addresses. If the system now supports more general locations, terrific.

Wayne Phyllaier suggests that DDOT post signs listing the cross streets. That would tell the trail user what information to give MPD if they have to report a problem. He says the Custis Trail uses this technique.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

Great. This is exactly what I feared about the new trail (the assault part of the story, that is).

by engrish_major on Jun 16, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

I keep hearing stories of kids and other people trying to push or knock off bikers from their bikes. Are they just doing it for shits and giggles or are they actually trying to mug the person?

by Andrew S on Jun 16, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

1) According to WashCycle, MD 911 dispatchers don't know about the NE Branch Trail either:

2) According to that same article in 2/3 of the attacks on the NE Branch Trail "personal property was taken from the victim."

by Jon on Jun 16, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

No surprise to me. Training in knowing DC roads and pathways is critically lacking for dispatchers, first responders and even some Metro Access drivers.

I've seen EMS get lost - even drive right past reported emergencies.

I sat in the front seat of an ambulance over a year ago. The driver was using MapQuest to get direction to Sibley emergency room from Connecticut Ave. He was driving and following mapquest and would not listen to my recommendation for the most efficient route their. Later when i asked him where he lived and how long he'ld been on the job, he replied No VA and one year.

by erahk0 on Jun 16, 2010 11:50 am • linkreport

It's not just 911. I tried to report a broken traffic light at the corner of 4th and F Streets, NE. Traffic lights are at intersections, not at street addresses, but if you don't put in a "correct" street address, which is a street number and a single street name, the system will not accept it. I tried using 599 4th Street NE, and 601 4th Street NE, but they did not work. The system did accept 501 4th St, but it automatically "corrected" the quadrant to SE.

by Stanton Park on Jun 16, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

Is this a 4th attack?

by A on Jun 16, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

You forgot part of the thread... "When he called 911 to report the incident, the dispatcher seemed unable to enter the incident into the database because the trail isn't a "street". " should be appended with, 5d followed up and said that until the 911 database is updated, please report the nearest cross street

by m on Jun 16, 2010 12:09 pm • linkreport

Signs along the trail indicating the names of the cross streets would help a lot for reporting the location along the trail during emergencies. Trail mile markers are of little use to most non-trail users, but if you say something like "west side of the CSX/Metro tracks at R Street", most people can find the location even if they know nothing about the trail. I like the way the Custis Trail has signs to identify the adjacent streets.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Jun 16, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

The MBT has always seemed like a good idea but it goes though some questionable areas in my opinion anyway. This pretty much confirms that.

by Matt R on Jun 16, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

911 is making a critical thinking error. Their system assumes everything happens in a building, and hence at an address. Clearly, the folks who designed the system never thought about things happening in the street. This is simple gross negligence.

by Jasper on Jun 16, 2010 12:52 pm • linkreport


My hope is that the 911 system evolves. I agree that the system should be able to handle non-address locations.

It should be noted that it began when there were only landlines at easily definable locations, but has since had to go through growing pains with the advent of cell phones.

by Rob on Jun 16, 2010 1:00 pm • linkreport

This is why, as a resident of the Commonwealth, I am armed while riding on these bike trails. Some (such as the Custis Trail) have barriers on both sides, which can remove any escape routes should a group of trouble makers appear.

by Arlington1 on Jun 16, 2010 1:36 pm • linkreport

"My hope is that the 911 system evolves. I agree that the system should be able to handle non-address locations."

The 911 system CAN handle non address locations such as intersections and place names. I know this as I have seen the backside of DC's system

by David on Jun 16, 2010 1:41 pm • linkreport

It's ridiculous that your phone can't just send 911 your gps coordinates. I realize that is data and we're talking about an antiquated voice service, but still. 911 step into the modern era.

by James on Jun 16, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

I experienced something similar in Chicago in 2008. I had a bike accident in Grant Park, and the 911 dispatcher kept asking for my location as an intersection. Of course, there were no nearby streets or intersections because we were in the park... When the ambulance finally arrived, they said they'd been driving all over with no idea where I was.

by Rob on Jun 16, 2010 2:11 pm • linkreport

The W&OD trail as numbered and colored tags at regular intervals. You are supposed to be able to tell the 911 operator the closest tag number so they can determine your location.

by Wh on Jun 16, 2010 2:27 pm • linkreport


Your phone can and does if you purchased it within the past few years. The problem is that DC's antiquated and poorly maintained 911 system is incapable of receiving and processing the information.

by Jacob on Jun 16, 2010 3:00 pm • linkreport

Does DC charge the E-911 fee as other states do?

by DCbureaucrat on Jun 16, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

Armed while riding the Custis trail? WTF? What kind of brown flip-flop wearing hooligans are menacing you on the Custis, anyway? And, where exactly are you keeping your firearm while riding that it will be readily accessible when you have like a second to react as you come upon trouble?

by dcbrewer on Jun 16, 2010 10:22 pm • linkreport

Is the gun for coyotes?

by David C on Jun 16, 2010 11:29 pm • linkreport

When I first moved to the district 10 or so years ago, I got an experience of how inadequate the 911 system is. And it's especially bad, considering how many tourists visit DC. I was visiting the Lincoln Memorial with a friend. It was an especially hot day and a guy collapsed and started convulsing. I borrowed another tourist's cell phone and called 911.
Me: there's someone who needs an ambulance. he's unconscious and convulsing.
Operator: what is the address?
Me: It's the Lincoln Memorial -- next to the Korean Memorial.
Operator: Ma'am, I need an address.
Me: It's the Lincoln Memorial! it doesn't have an address!
Operator: I need cross streets before I can send out an ambulance.
Me: Um, um, I think it's 23rd St NW and maybe Constitution?

I only lived in the city for a month and kept getting Constitution and Independence confused. Imagine being a tourist and having absolutely no clue. There aren't any street signs when you're on the Mall.

by louc on Jun 17, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

@ Rob: It should be noted that it began when there were only landlines at easily definable locations, but has since had to go through growing pains with the advent of cell phones.

Yeah, cuz cell phones are all the new crazy. Nice of them to catch up to technology of 15 years ago. Perhaps in 15 years from now, they will start getting ready to pick up the GPS coordinates that every cell phone has these days exactly for the purpose of aiding 911 calls?

by Jasper on Jun 17, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

I hae the same thing happen to me when some drunks dropped a match or something in my local playground. Dry grass lit up into a huge fire within moments. Drunks kicking sand on it was not doing the trick. I called 911, they would not send fire truck b/c I could not give them the street address (I have no idea of the street address for a playground). I did give them the cross street. Luckily, some worker from a nearby remodeling job saw what was happening and arrived with fire extinguishers. If it had been a badly injured child at the playground it might have been a much worse situation.

At a minimum, 911 dispatcher should be polite and work with people who don't have an address rather than just dismissing them rudely.

by Lynn on Jun 18, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

A few points... DC's 911 surcharge / tax is $0.76 / line (landline and [non-prepaid] wireless phones with a DC billing address).

DC's Office of Unified Communications (OUC) has a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, capable of entering locations as a street address, intersection, commonplace name (locations known better by their name than by their street address) and X/Y coordinate (latitude/longitude) data.

Not all 911 jurisdictions have CAD and those who do, the ability to record a caller's location depends on the data that has been previously entered. Not all jurisdictions will enter all public locations into their commonplace name file and those that are entered need to be maintained. (Not saying that is a good practice, just the way it is.)

DC has Phase II wireless, meaning that it can use the coordinate data provided when calling 9-1-1. The wireless service providers (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint-Nextel...) deliver that data in one of two ways: handset-based GPS and network-based GPS. Regardless of the method, accuracy is dependent on a number of factors.

For the person who called from their home to report the incident, obviously, the GPS data would not have been helpful to the 911 call taker.

The OUC website ( has a customer satisfaction survey. Would suggest you fill one out!

by 911 Guy on Jul 7, 2010 12:49 pm • linkreport

This happened to me yesterday (9/26/10), near the same location, except that the punks threw a punch at me and tried to kick me.
From now on, I'm carrying a weapons bag on my bike (mace, U-lock, stun gun-if legal).

by The Mighty Mesquito on Sep 26, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

Any chance of commuting groups riding the trail?

by Karen on Oct 11, 2010 7:54 pm • linkreport

Karen: That's a good question for the Met Branch Trail listserv, at

I recommend you join up and ask there.

by Stephen Miller on Oct 11, 2010 8:40 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us