911 Cell Call Failed to Bring Help for Slain UW Student

MADISON, Wis. — Police said Thursday that a 911 call from a college student’s cell phone the day she was murdered should have triggered the dispatch of a police officer, but police weren’t notified of the call.

The existence of the April 2 call from Brittany Sue Zimmermann’s phone prompted questions about how local officials handle emergency calls from cell phones, as well as about the call itself.

Zimmermann, 21, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student from Marshfield, was killed in her downtown apartment and later found by her fiance.

The 911 call from her phone was first reported Thursday by Madison’s Isthmus newspaper, and it kicked off a round of finger-pointing between county 911 officials and police.

Neither Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County Public Safety Communications Center, nor Madison police would release a recording of the call or say exactly what time it was made or how long it lasted. Norwick said the dispatcher who took the call asked several times if there was an emergency, and after getting no response, hung up. The dispatcher didn’t follow a policy of calling the number back, he said.The dispatcher instead picked up other pending 911 calls, one of which was a hang-up call. In that case, the dispatcher did call back, Norwick said.

In all, he said there were 115 accidental or intentionally dialed non-emergency calls to 911 that day, 83 of them from cell phones.

Policy confusion

At a morning news conference, Norwick said: “The accuracy of determining the origin of cell phone calls may range from within a city block to several miles.”

But he later clarified that the Dane County dispatch center has had the ability to more closely locate cell phone callers since February 2007. The needed technology was purchased with the help of state grants. Law enforcement officers usually are dispatched automatically to a non-responsive or hang-up call only if it originates from a traditional wired phone, or land line, though it depends on the circumstances, he said. Norwick also said Madison police have requested that officers not be dispatched to the many unverified cell phone 911 calls.

Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said the city police policy is that an officer be sent to the location of cell phone calls if a dispatcher believes police services are needed.

Wray said he asked Dane County emergency officials to do an internal investigation of how the April 2 call was handled. Norwick said an investigation is ongoing.

Dane County Coroner John Stanley said Zimmermann’s death is being investigated as a homicide, but he could not release the cause of death. The coroner’s office has not received any results from the State Crime Laboratory yet, he said.

Madisonpolice spokesman Joel DeSpain said the investigation into Zimmermann’s slaying remains active, but there are no suspects.

Response to cell calls

Many 911 emergency centers in Wisconsin, especially those in highly populated areas, automatically dispatch police officers to investigate cell phone calls in which no one is talking, officials with the Wisconsin chapter of the National Emergency Number Association said.

In the Zimmermann case, police said, they found out about the call while investigating her slaying, then brought it to the attention of Dane County 911 officials.

Neither Wray nor Norwick would provide details about the 911 call, citing the ongoing investigation.

Wray said there is evidence in the call that should have resulted in the dispatch of a police officer, though he declined to say what the evidence was, including whether there was sound on the call.

Nearly all counties in Wisconsin have technology in place that permits 911 call centers to locate callers using cell phones, said Jay Maritz, a former president of Wisconsin’s Emergency Number Association and a Walworth County Sheriff’s Department captain.

The state Public Service Commission put a surcharge on all cell phone numbers in 2005 to help local governments pay for the needed equipment and software.

All newer cell phones are equipped with global-positioning satellite devices to allow emergency dispatch centers to get the most accurate location of the phone. But a 911 call must last 15 seconds to 20 seconds for the dispatch center to receive the phone’s GPS coordinates, which usually can guide emergency responders to within a car’s length of the caller.

“We would want to stay on the line and send police to that area to check it out,” said Richard Tuma, director of emergency preparedness for Waukesha County and director of the county’s central dispatch center.

Even if a such an open-line call is cut off before GPS coordinates are received, some 911 centers still will dispatch a squad car to the general area indicated by the initial cell phone locating system, which uses two or more cell towers to triangulate a location.

“If law enforcement has any idea at all where that person can be, we go,” said Dave Sleeter, director of communications for Rock County’s 911 center.

Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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