FITCHBURG, Wis. — More than two weeks after revelations that Dane County’s 911 Center may have mishandled a call from the cell phone of UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann around the time she was murdered, the community is still asking questions about the efficacy of the 911 center and demanding quick action from public officials.
Nearly 100 people — including at least a dozen reporters — packed the basement of the Fitchburg Community Center on Monday night for an unofficial public hearing on the 911 system. More than 30 people spoke, and another 30 registered their concerns.
“I don’t trust the system anymore. Maybe shame on me for trusting the system to begin with,” said radio talk show host Vicki McKenna of WIBA/AM 1310, who on her station’s Web site asks more than 20 questions about the 911 center, its protocols and the 911 call made at the time of Zimmermann’s death.
Like others who spoke at the meeting, McKenna said she was not blaming the dispatcher who handled Zimmermann’s disconnected 911 call and failed to call back as agency protocol requires. “Everybody recognizes that there is human fallibility. No one is out there hoping to string up one poor person who probably went home after she found out about it and just wanted to die.”
McKenna said she has two cell phones and no land line and wondered if she made an emergency 911 call from a cell phone, if her location would show up on the dispatcher’s screen. She said she wanted answers to that and other questions so that she can “go to bed at night and not worry that if I have a stroke or heart attack somebody’s going to be there and know where the hell I am and get me the help I need.”
Dane County Supervisors Ronn Ferrell, Eileen Bruskewitz and Jack Martz, along with Ald. Paul Skidmore, a longtime member of Madison’s public safety review board, co-chaired the meeting. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, 911 Center Director Joe Norwick, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray were invited to attend, but all said they had other commitments.
Roger Finch of the Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association said there are 911 center problems that have not been addressed in the past decade. They include poor or no radio and MDC (Mobile Data Computers) reception and transmissions in areas of the county known as “dead spots.” The Northwest and Southwest areas of Dane County are particularly bad, he said.
Finch also stressed the need for a common radio frequency that can be used by all county law enforcement. The stop-gap solution has been a radio patch, which is often difficult to understand and requires a dispatcher to join frequencies such as VHF and UHF radio bands.
Currently, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office operates on VHF and Madison Police Department on UHF.
The County Board staff is reviewing a 2004 audit of the criminal justice system to see if recommendations made by MTG Management Consultants were implemented and if the county needs to bring in more outside experts to review the current 911 system.
Finch said that “yet another study” into the 911 Center operation would be seen as a delay in fixing the problems and an additional cost to taxpayers.
“If we are to believe that the quality of management in the center is as high as purported, then why does the county executive have to rely on an outside fix that will, of course, take months if not years to implement?” he asked.
Mike Meyers, who has been a police officer, an EMT and a firefighter as well as a 911 dispatcher for 25 years, said that a lot of needed improvements to the center haven’t been done or were done too slowly.
Meyers worked with the dispatcher who handled Zimmermann’s 911 call for about 20 years and said he is worried that she was being scapegoated.
“She’s very dedicated, very thoughtful about what she does and helps the people out as much as she can. She does an extremely good job,” he said about the dispatcher, who has not been named but who officials say was transferred to another county job.
Meyers also expressed empathy for the center’s director, Joe Norwick, who has only been on the job less than a year. “He’s been put in a tough spot,” Meyers said after the meeting.
Michelle Nightoak of Marshall, who has worked as a 911 dispatcher the last four years, said she loves her job and takes great pride in her work, but added, “there is always room for improvement.” She has seen great improvement over the last four years, she said.
Nightoak, who works the third shift, said it’s almost impossible to predict what a day will bring. There are times, like 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., when calls come in sporadically, but there are other times, like bar time Friday and Saturday nights, when all the phone lines light up, she said.
The mother of five said that dispatchers generally work eight-hour shifts with two paid 15-minute breaks. While she often works overtime voluntarily, she said dispatchers are not allowed to work more than 14 hours straight.
John McAnelly, a resident of Parkwood Hills in Madison, said he wondered how many supervisors had read the 2004 report that found several deficiencies in the staffing, procedures and oversight of the 911 center.
“It concerns me. You apparently paid a lot of money to the consultants for this report, and I get the impression the county executive is using it as a cushion in her chair,” he said to applause.
Judith Munaker, a retired prosecutor who deals with domestic abuse cases, stressed the need for continual 911 center staff training and noted that 911 hang-up calls are very common in domestic disturbances.
Dave Glomp, who lives on the west side of Madison, asked what the procedures are for calls where the dispatcher doesn’t hear a voice on the other end. He said he was concerned about a person having a stroke or other medical emergency where the victim could dial 911, but was not be able to speak.
“If there is no voice on the other end, is that considered a hang-up?
Glomp also wanted to know if the technology is available to pinpoint the exact location of cell phone calls from all of the various cell phone providers.
Dane County Supervisor John Hendrick said he is sponsoring a resolution Thursday night at the County Board meeting to ask for the authority to create a separate public safety taxing levy that would support the rural patrols for the sheriff’s department and the county’s portion of the 911 center.
Those at the meeting raised $145 for the Brittany Zimmermann scholarship fund.
There will be a meeting of the Dane County Board’s executive committee on the 911 center audit, open to all supervisors and the public, at 6 p.m. June 4 in room 201 of the City-County Building.
Public testimony will be taken at the meeting, as it was during a joint committee meeting May 8.
Dane County Board Chairman Scott McDonell said in a memo to county supervisors that he expects the committee to approve an independent audit of the county’s 911 Center during the meeting “in order to review their performance with fresh eyes.”