Former Dane County 911 dispatchers say it easily could have been them who forgot to call back a silent 911 call, and they fear that the dispatcher who failed to send police in response to murder victim Brittany Zimmermann's call for help will be made a scapegoat.
Three former dispatchers say the botched call - and arguably even more botched official response - is indicative of years of problems at the 911 Center.
They say the center has long suffered from insufficient staffing, inadequate training, inept leadership and decrepit equipment, resulting in poor morale.
Good dispatchers "are leaving in droves," says Kathy "Gus" Geske, who quit in December 2006 after 10 years. "The experienced people are trying to get out as fast as they can."
Another former dispatcher, Patrick Sweet, tells Isthmus that high turnover owes not just to the stress of the job, but the bad environment.
"The 911 Center is short-staffed almost always, leaving dispatchers to have mandatory overtime almost always, which makes tired and less alert folks," says Sweet, a dispatcher for three years.
"They've known for a long time that there are huge problems," adds Maggie Freespirit, who quit two years ago after a decade on the job. "There were never enough call takers, even when they claimed to be fully staffed."
The dispatchers' complaints are corroborated by a consultant's report in 2004 that blasted the 911 Center for "insufficient staffing" and "lack of ongoing training." The report also said procedures are not regularly updated, assessed or even followed. It warned that Dane County faces "possible liability and the potential for a catastrophic event" if changes aren't made.
County officials say improvements are ongoing; the former dispatchers dispute this. They say the lack of progress on these fronts is a main reason many experienced staffers have bailed for better work environments.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said she had no information that the 911 Center is understaffed. And while she revealed that the tape of Zimmermann's 911 call contains "sounds that would have significance" that the dispatcher did not hear, she denied there was any unusual background noise or distractions to account for this.
Geske says one of the many problems at the 911 Center is the noise level. "It's so loud in there that I've had times where I've listened back to tapes and heard things on the playback that I just couldn't hear at the time."
Embattled 911 Center director Joe Norwick did not directly answer a number of questions sent to him by email about the staff complaints, but reports "significant efforts" since he took over last July. He says overtime rates are lower this year than last, and that two new positions and 10 vacant positions have been filled since he took command.
As for the dispatcher who took the Zimmermann call, the three former dispatchers describe her as conscientious, hardworking and caring. They say she had been seeking a transfer out of the center long before the Zimmermann call.