Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and 911 Center director Joe Norwick came under heavy fire Monday night as Dane County citizens and employees complained about Falk and Norwick's failures to address longstanding problems at Dane County's 911 Center.
"The 911 dispatch chief quite frankly doesn't have the shoes for the job," said citizen Gary Berliot. Norwick is not entirely to blame, Berliot said, because of Falk's failures to commit adequate resources to the center.
"I'd like to see both of them retire or resign." The audience inside the Fitchburg Community Center applauded.
Dane County Supervisors Jack Martz, Ronn Ferrell, and Eileen Bruskewitz organized the community meeting after supervisors spun their wheels two weeks ago in a failed attempt to get answers to basic questions about problems in the center.
The meeting comes in the midst of continuing controversy over the adequacy of Dane County's 911 system following a botched response to a call for help from UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann, who was stabbed and beaten to death inside her campus-area apartment on April 2. Police were not dispatched to the 911 call and were then provided with erroneous information about a non-existent callback to the number. The existence of the call, and the botched follow-up, was withheld from the public until reported in Isthmus on May 1.
Neither Falk nor Norwick were in attendance at the meeting Monday night at the Fitchburg Community Center. Falk and Norwick attended the funeral of a nurse killed in last week's MedFlight crash. Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney had unspecified scheduling conflicts. Several audience members proclaimed disbelief in the explanations.
Unlike the meeting of two county board committees two weeks ago, Monday's meeting touched on a number of substantive issues, although by the end there were still many unanswered questions.
Dozens of citizens testified. Some complained about inadequate responses when they called 911, while others vented about the failures of politicians to seriously investigate years of problems at the center. Some blasted the priorities of political leaders, including former school board Nancy Mistele who said that county government recently spent $16 million on parkland but have chronically shortchanged the 911 center.
Retired politicians gave history lessons of inadequate funding for the center. A former prosecutor talked about the need to respond to hang-up calls because of their frequency in domestic disturbances.
Don Severson, a local government watchdog, said "political spin" has plagued the response from county officials, and says officials need to "be straightforward and honest and of concern for good public policy." Severson said the real problem was that the county board and county executive "have seemed to pass on really making a commitment financially," adding, "I dare say there is nothing more important than valuing people's lives and health."
Roger Finch, a representative of the Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association, blasted Dane County officials for failing to address long-standing problems with Dane County's 911 Center.
"We too are troubled with the situation of the 911 center," Finch said. Finch said the deputies are "disheartened" that officials have singled out a "highly qualified and competent dispatcher."
Instead, Finch railed against several "continued difficulties" with the 911 center that have not been addressed despite the fact that county officials have known about them for years. The problems include poor or no radio data reception, particularly in the northwest and southwest parts of the county, and cumbersome procedures for patching radio calls.
"Yet another study is seen as a delay," Finch said. "If we are to believe the quality of management in the center is as high as is purported," why haven't longstanding problems been addressed, he asked.
Finch says it's "incredibly frustrating" that county government has been so unresponsive to concerns and said another study would only prolong delays.
No more excuses, no more outside studies, no more delays," Finch said. His full statement (PDF) is available in the related downloads at top right.
Falk has maintained that no staffing problems exist at the center, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
A current dispatcher, Michelle Nightoak, provided further evidence that contradicts Falk.
"Sometimes the staff is adequate, sometimes it's not," Nightoak said. The mother of five works the night shift, when only three call takers are on duty, she said. Most of the time, that's enough, she said, but there are times when there are too few call takers to handle all the calls. She says she regularly works voluntary and involuntary overtime. One month she worked 80 hours of voluntary overtime, she said.
She also corrected county officials who previously stated that dispatchers get a 30-minute lunch break. That's not true, she said.
The hiring of Norwick also came under fire by a longtime Dane County 911 dispatcher.
Mike Meyers, who retired in 2004 after working for county 911 since 1978, wondered aloud why Falk passed over a number of other qualified candidates last summer when she instead reopened a job search and then selected Norwick, a veteran deputy of the Dane County Sheriff's Office whose only 911 experience was as chairman of a county oversight committee.
"I believe that if you take a look at the 911 director position that was advertised, was interviewed, they had some good candidates," Meyers said. "And all of a sudden they're re-advertising. I don't know if Kathleen just wanted a certain person in that position, or what the deal was. They should have had a good director in there."
Meyers also defended the dispatcher who took the Zimmermann call but failed to hear sounds that a review of the audiotape later led officials to conclude cops should have been dispatched.
"I think the dispatcher is being a scapegoat by Kathleen, by Joe, and anybody else. And God help me, I hope that's not true," Meyers said. "This person I worked side by side for 20 years. You can have no other dedicated, kind hearted person on a phone than this person."
Meyers said: "There is no more satisfying job than being a 911 dispatcher," adding: "The problem is the leadership."
Madison Ald. Paul Skidmore, who's been on the city council for seven years, says he's harangued for years about the likelihood of a "catastrophic event" if problems at the 911 center weren't fixed.
"I've talked to many, many, many officers from the captains and lieutenants on down and I don't think there's a single person there that blames the dispatchers," said Skidmore. "I think that the responsibility goes higher. I think we know where that lies."
Skidmore added, "I feel that the center has been underfunded and understaffed and that's where the problem lies."
County Supv. John Hendrick, who's called for an "outside, independent audit" of the 911 center, said he plans to introduce a resolution Thursday night seeking legislative approval for a new taxing levy for 911 services.
"I realize and I heard tonight from the Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association that we can't wait for the results of that investigation," Hendrick said. "We need to take action."
Even talk-radio host Vicki McKenna testified. And in vintage McKenna style, she was on a rampage, saying she's tired of local politicians putting the next election above solving problems.
After more than three weeks of daily headlines, McKenna said public officials still haven't come clean about the facts.
"I can't get answers for my very basic questions," she said. Among them: Can the 911 center pinpoint with any degree of accuracy on a GPS-enabled telephone? What are the protocols for dispatch of the 85 agencies? Who developed the protocols? Should they be reviewed?
"I don't trust the system anymore," McKenna said.