After a month of questions about the adequacy of Dane County's 911 system, the Dane County Board is expected next week to create two new 911 dispatcher positions. The board could also authorize the second independent audit of the 911 Center in five years.
"There's widespread agreement on these two items, and I'd be surprised if they don't happen," says Dane County Board Chair Scott McDonell.
The plan is something of an about-face for County Executive Kathleen Falk, who three weeks ago asserted, "No one has suggested we are inadequately staffed." She said this the day after Isthmus published a story ("Short-Staffed Almost Always," 5/9/08) that quoted three former Dane County 911 dispatchers complaining about longstanding staffing problems. Last week, a current dispatcher told a listening session that "sometimes the staff is adequate, sometimes it's not."
McDonell says he's convinced new hires are needed. This week, the Personnel and Finance Committee approved the measure to add the two new positions on top of two positions created in the 2008 budget. The 911 Center currently has 73 employees.
Last week, Falk also directed Joe Norwick, 911 Center director, to expedite the filling of other dispatcher vacancies, authorized him to "over-hire" limited-term employees who can begin training and fill vacancies, and directed him to "fast track" training for highly qualified candidates.
Problems at the 911 Center surfaced May 1 after Isthmus reported that UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann called 911 for help before she was murdered in her Doty Street apartment on April 2, but police were never sent.
In the aftermath of the Isthmus story, there have been tense press conferences by public officials, several County Board hearings varying from the partisan to substantive, the start of employee discipline hearings, calls for resignations and firings, a flurry of open records requests, near daily headlines, national media attention, scores of public complaints about responses to 911 and police calls, and a lawsuit against the county by news organizations.
Allegations of problems inside the 911 Center range from inept management, poorly designed training programs, chronic staff shortages and lax oversight. Several longtime employees have sought transfers to other county jobs, some for less pay. Several say they complained about the bad work environment in exit interviews and emails to county officials.
County Supv. Dennis O'Loughlin concluded in 2001 that the center was too crowded and too noisy, saying "we should update the whole operation." Staffing problems were among the multitude of problems identified in 2004 by consultants, who warned of a "catastrophic event" if problems weren't quickly fixed. The report called for adding eight new positions.
At the time, Falk rejected the eight hires as recommended by the Public Safety Communications Center Board. Instead, records show she sought a $138,000 reduction in staff. The board sent Falk a memo "stating that a reduction in communicator staff was not feasible and in fact there is a need for additional staff," according to meeting minutes dated Aug. 25, 2004.
Since 2005, Falk has added six positions, including three call-takers, and protected the agency from budget freezes, says her spokesman, Joshua Westcott. After County Board approval of the two new positions, the county will have met the 2004 staffing recommendations, although it's unclear whether increased call volume since 2004 continues to place the county below national staffing standards.
But the problems at the 911 Center go beyond staffing.
The Madison Police Department has long had concerns about dispatcher responses to calls for help, and last summer Police Chief Noble Wray requested information about incidents in which police were not dispatched to calls. As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal 911 Center operations manager Rich McVicar wasn't aware of the request.
Dane County sheriff's deputies have also long complained about poor or no radio reception in some parts of the county and the lack of a common radio frequency, according to Roger Finch of the Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association.
"If the quality of management in the center is as high as purported," Finch asks, "then why does the county executive have to rely on an outside fix that will, of course, take months if not years to implement?"
The only individual facing discipline for what Falk has described as "system failures" is the dispatcher who took the call. But these proceedings are on hold until Madison police allow the use of information related to the Zimmermann murder investigation, according to Westcott. The dispatcher was granted a transfer to another county agency, and her former colleagues say she's being made a scapegoat for bigger problems at the center.
Falk has been left bruised by her own misstatements and those of her handpicked 911 chief. Politically, the piranhas are circling as talk radio callers and County Board conservatives hunt for candidates to run for county executive next spring.
Meanwhile, other public officials have displayed stunning deference to secrecy, despite legitimate public concerns about the quality of public-safety services.
One absurd example was Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard's admonition at a May 8 County Board hearing not to answer whether the botched return call initially thought to be linked to the Zimmermann case had gone to a phone number in the town or the city of Middleton. Blanchard deemed the answer too crucial to the investigation to be made public.
An hour later, a heavily redacted version of the 40-page investigative report written by 911 Center managers revealed that Blanchard's office had just hours earlier deemed the information so mundane that it was passed over during two redaction efforts. (In case anyone cares, the call went to the town.)
This week, Dane County's corporation counsel denied an open records request for basic information about the handling of the call. The county released to Isthmus emails between Madison police and 911 Center employees so heavily redacted as to make their content indiscernible. Several media organizations have sued to gain access to the audiotape and other information about the 911 call.
Meanwhile, county supervisors next week will discuss whether to hire an outside agency to investigate the 911 Center's operations.
McDonell says $70,000 in county funds is available for an audit, which he hopes could be conducted this summer.
Supervisors have not decided whether to use the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials, as recommended by Falk, or an outside group without ties to Dane County 911 Center employees.
County Supv. John Hendrick has called for a competitive bidding process for the selection of an outside firm, saying he's concerned that the public may wonder whether an association audit is truly independent.
"People have been asking a lot of good questions about the 911 Center," he says, "and I think we owe it to them to get the answers."