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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Dane County 911 Center faces the future
Second tragedy amplifies call for improvements
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Falk calls the blowback 'unfair' and 'one-sided.'
Falk calls the blowback 'unfair' and 'one-sided.'

Kathleen Falk thinks she knows what's wrong with Dane County's 911 Center and how to fix it. What's needed, says the county executive, is new, uniform police dispatch software.

"The most significant challenge is that we have 85 different jurisdictions of fire, EMS and police that ask us to do their dispatch for them," says Falk. "The complexity for 911 operators is really significant."

So far this year, two tragedies have brought negative attention to the center. The first was its failure to dispatch assistance in response to a 911 call from the cell phone of UW student Brittany Zimmermann, 21, before her murder on April 2. The second occurred on Nov. 3, when the center did not promptly respond to reports of an escalating feud at Lake Edge Park on Madison's east side that resulted in the death of Mark G. Johnson, 37.

In the latest case, the 911 Center quickly made public the existence of the calls and issued findings within days detailing how the mistakes occurred. That contrasts with its handling of the Zimmermann case, where the center refused to acknowledge the call or mistakes until it was reported by Isthmus.

The coroner determined Johnson died from multiple head and chest trauma, according to Madison police. The only suspect, Michael E. Voltz, 46, remains jailed on a parole hold. Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard says his office is still reviewing reports.

Had 911 policies been properly followed, Madison police say officers would have been dispatched to the park as much as 90 minutes before Johnson was found unconscious.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, who sits on the 911 oversight board, used the term "going ballistic" to describe his reaction. And Nancy Mistele, Falk's newly announced challenger for next spring's county executive race, has pounced on the problems, telling a TV station: "Kathleen Falk's poor judgment cost a couple of lives."

The 911 Center is under a microscope due to the controversies it has weathered in recent months.

A search is under way for a new director, to replace Joe Norwick, who resigned in September after months of criticism. New equipment and training stations are being added, and training programs are being expanded.

Most notably, the Dane County Board has increased the center's staff positions by nearly 20% in the last six months, from 73 to 86; some won't actually be on the job until late 2009 because of lengthy training requirements. Earlier this month, Matrix Consulting Group identified the need for the additional dispatchers, saying a "very low net availability" of dispatchers results in significant overtime.

Last week, the 911 Center's oversight board voted to create a subcommittee to study new police dispatch protocols, which would require dispatchers to read from a script and be guided by computer software in questioning callers.

In the meantime, Falk directed Kathy Krusiec, the center's interim head, to institute a temporary policy ordering that responders be dispatched "to any situation where there is any doubt whatsoever that anyone's safety is at all in jeopardy." But this directive has come under fire because local agencies and the oversight board were not consulted, as county ordinance seems to require.

"The director can't make policy," Madison Police Capt. Carl Gloede pointedly told Krusiec at last week's oversight board meeting. Gloede noted that county ordinance requires new policies and practices to be vetted by the oversight board, which Falk and Krusiec did not do.

"The memo is dated Nov. 7, and this is the first time I've seen it, and it's the 19th," Gloede said. "If you're creating new policy, you have to share it with the agencies it affects."

Agreed Skidmore, "These types of things ought to come here for vetting and discussion."

As Falk sees it, problems at the 911 Center have been overblown. The facility, she maintains, has been well managed and adequately staffed. She deems questions about her administration's oversight of the center to be "unfair" and criticized news reports for being "one-sided."

"Staffing has not been an issue," she says, pointing to data showing that 911 calls are answered quickly. "It is only an issue with respect to how much overtime you have. Any 24-7 operation has overtime. It's impossible not to."

Falk also defends her support of former director Norwick, saying she still believes he had the expertise necessary to run the center. She even refuses to admit error in not conducting performance evaluations of the 911 Center director.

"He had not been the director for fully a year," she says, when asked why she didn't conduct a review of Norwick. But in fact, Norwick was the director from July 2007 to September 2008. On being reminded of this, Falk explains, "I would normally do one around that time to give people some opportunity, and of course I met with him frequently."

But Falk has not conducted a performance evaluation of a 911 Center director for at least the past five years, her spokesman Josh Wescott confirmed earlier this year. This was after Isthmus asked to see the evaluations, which are required as part of the director's employment contract.

Meanwhile, the consultant hired to evaluate 911 Center management, training and oversight issues recently described the center as being "generally" well run. His report is due in January.

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