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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Officials stonewall on 911 complaints
After protracted wait, a few records are released, and a huge fee is sought
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Peter Fox calls the free demand 'ludicrous,' saying that if officials don't already have these complaints in hand, 'they all deserve to be discharged.'
Peter Fox calls the free demand 'ludicrous,' saying that if officials don't already have these complaints in hand, 'they all deserve to be discharged.'

The administration of County Executive Kathleen Falk continues to stymie media efforts to learn more about longstanding problems at the county's 911 Center. And what little information is being released following revelations that UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann called 911 before she was killed is not comforting.

Last week, two and a half months after receiving a public records request from Isthmus, Dane County's corporation counsel turned over single-page printouts summarizing formal complaints about 911 Center call handling for the past five years.

The spreadsheets show formal complaints against the 911 Center jumped by 50% from 2006 to 2007, with 17 of 24 complaints sustained. These complaints include rude or unhelpful dispatchers, dispatchers sending emergency crews to wrong locations and, significant to the Zimmermann case, dispatchers not sending police to emergencies.

Included in this release were supporting documents for some of the complaints from 2003 and 2007. But officials claim it will take 70 hours to locate complaints for 2004, 2005 and 2006. They say the work must be performed by an employee making $33.81 an hour, demanding payment of $2,366.70 before processing this request.

Peter Fox, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, is outraged by this response.

"We have a county leadership, including the county executive, telling us how much they want to resolve issues and restore public confidence in the 911 Center," says Fox, a former newspaper reporter, editor and state government official. "On the other hand, they drag their heels on a legitimate and useful public-information request, and then play games to deny access."

Fox scoffs at the notion that extensive additional searches must be conducted to locate these complaints. "At face value, it's ludicrous," he says. "If they don't have those complaints already gathered and evaluated in light of what has happened in the last several months, then they all deserve to be discharged."

County officials also claim they have absolutely no records of employee complaints during the past five years, either in exit interviews or unsolicited emails to county staff. But Corporation Counsel Marcia MacKenzie says "expressions of concern" would not have been included: "You asked for complaints."

Dane County did not publicly reveal that a call was received from Zimmermann's phone shortly before she was killed on April 2. Since then, it has maintained a mindset of determined secrecy regarding the 911 Center's handling of this call and the botched follow-up, which included providing detectives with erroneous information.

Zimmermann's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court, and several news organizations have brought a lawsuit pursuing records in state court. A number of longstanding problems have surfaced about the 911 Center, including a 2004 audit warning of a "catastrophic" event if problems weren't immediately addressed.

The 2007 complaints released to Isthmus show that about half of the complaints against the 911 Center were filed by local police, fire and EMS officials.

One complaint involved the dispatching of unavailable ambulances. "Unfortunately, some pretty basic things were missed by this communicator," 911 operations manager Rich McVicar wrote in response. "We'll take necessary steps to have similar cases in the future be carried out correctly."

But this contact was not initially logged as a complaint until Steven Wunsch, Middleton's director of EMP services, insisted.

"Normally I don't like to make waves," wrote Wunsch, "but this sort of thing has been happening far too often lately (this is the fourth or fifth time this happened in the last year)." He wanted the complaint logged in so officials could better track mistakes.

Middleton police filed six complaints in 2007 about not being dispatched to calls. "I know of nine other no-notification situations" in the prior three months where police should have been dispatched, wrote Lt. Noel Kakuske. Follow-up emails indicate that in two cases, the dispatcher said "she was a bit busy and forgot on both accounts."

Several other sustained ("founded") complaints involved erroneous, incomplete or rude communications. The Cross Plains Fire Department said a dispatcher made "inappropriate" remarks and failed to use proper fire dispatch codes and truck assignments, which slowed a firefighting response.

After an assistant chief put his complaints in writing, Rick Lange, a 911 Center supervisor, wrote: "Frankly, I am surprised and confused by the number of times I've heard and read the same concern and complaint from you. Particularly because I thought the issues had been resolved initially."

Missing from the 2007 complaint log is any complaint from the Madison Police Department, which has professedly had longstanding concerns about 911 Center services.

Previously, county officials rejected a request from Isthmus for documents related to job transfer of the 911 dispatcher who took Zimmermann's call. This is a matter on which 911 Center director Joe Norwick deliberately misled reporters.

Last week, Norwick initially claimed to know nothing about a document presented to a county oversight meeting summarizing 911 Center complaints for 2008.

"I am not sure what you are asking for," Norwick wrote in response to an email request for the "quarterly report of complaints" noted on the agenda for last Wednesday's Public Safety Communications Center Board. Norwick, consistent with past practice, also wrote, "we decline to be interviewed."

Only after Isthmus contacted Falk's press aide Josh Wescott did Norwick email the two-page document, which the County Board has required of the center after the Zimmermann snafu became public.

The document shows that 29 complaints have been filed thus far in 2008, although little detail is provided. The complaints deemed "founded" include departments not being dispatched to calls, dispatched to calls in error, and being dispatched to a wrong location.

After Wescott got involved, Norwick agreed to answer questions by email. He then declined to answer several of them, referring questions about search times for complaints and the uses of exit interviews to others.

Norwick does confirm that the county has received six bids from contractors seeking to conduct the second independent audit of the center in five years. He also says his staff is still implementing a policy change to dispatch police to all 911 cell-phone calls where a location can be obtained, regardless of whether there is an identifiable emergency.

Ironically, given Norwick's refusal to be interviewed, 911 Center staffers have taken aim at Isthmus for its coverage of the center's problems.

In an email after Isthmus reported on complaints about 911 Center training practices, Tom Hanrahan, the center's support services manager, wondered if the paper's coverage was for "entertainment" rather than to "inform the public," and chastised Isthmus for not reporting "both sides."

Again, Fox finds this objectionable.

"Call me wacky, but it seems to me that anyone who lives in or travels through Dane County has an interest in the professional and efficient operation of the 911 Center," he says. "It's absolutely asinine to criticize Isthmus for bringing this matter to public light."

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