Monday, December 29, 2008

Scapegoating or no, it doesn't end here

I'm a little late to the game here, but I can honestly blame the holidays for the delay. What can I say? Blogging should always fall by the wayside when family is in town.

Anyway, an article in the Wisconsin State Journal (and probably several other news outlets) details the recent suspension of former 911 operator Rita Gahagan in response to how she mishandled the call from slain UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann back in April.

While I agree that some form of disciplinary action against Gahagan, who claims she couldn't hear the sounds of a woman screaming and an ensuing struggle (as recently declassified police reports state), and then failed to follow up on the call, is necessary - I don't feel comfortable saying that all blame lies on her shoulders alone.

Gahagan did, after all, request a transfer prior to the incident (why was that, anyway?), and otherwise seems to have had a stellar performance history at the center. Did she mess up on that particular call? It would absolutely appear to be so. But were there (and are there still) system wide problems within the 911 call center? That would also appear to be the case. And we cannot allow officials to sweep all of this under the rug with a simple 3-day suspension of a rank-and-file operator who has long since been demoted to a different department.

Much remains unanswered: Why did the public get several different (and often contradictory) stories from various officials immediately following the murder? Why did some of them then appear to attempt a cover-up of the facts? Why were the police reports "accidentally" unsealed recently? Why didn't Falk and others more quickly and effectively follow up on suggestions made by a consulting company years ago to update the 911 center's equipment and procedures?

We need to keep asking these questions, and demanding answers, until we get to the point where a tragic incident like the one involving Brittany Zimmermann simply cannot happen.


Michael J. Cheaney said...

From what I understand it is normal protocol to IMMEDIATELY call back a 911 hangup. -At least it is here in the Milwaukee Area Metroplex-

And if that fails then to send a squad to the address. Now what the protocol is for cell phone I don't know, but I would imagine that they keep calling that number until someone answers.

I agree with you somewhat that the blame should not rest on Gahagans shoulders, but the fact is that she was the last person to have contact with Ms. Zimmermann and was in a position to help, and she didn't.

Now about this ALLEGED transfer I say alleged because I really believe that given the "cover your ass" mentality of the call center after discovering the error of Ms Gahagan, I believe that MPD really thought they could just quietly move her to another department and the public would be none the wiser and the outrage would just die down. -After all do you remember the outrage after the internal memos were made public, regarding Gahagans comments regarding the incident, with her saying she had NOTHING to do with her death etc?-

jo man said...

Emily, let me cut to your first relevant question: why did Gahagan request a transfer prior to the incident? As an ex-911 operator with 20 years of experience in emergency dispatching, I'm entitled to speculate: in a word, burnout. Stellar performance or not. In fact it could be argued that the "stellars" are at more risk than others. But many, many dispatchers get out of the business, in one year, three, ten.. other city or county job opportunities present themselves, often with better hours, pay, keep your vacation time on the books, keep your insurance--what's not to like? I can't say exactly, but I'd guess there are only a handful still up there who signed on, from the then-existing agencies, when the center was organized--and that was only in 1988.

Yes, she "messed up" on the Zimmermann call, in that she didn't hear the scream, and/or other still unspecified sounds(a struggle? the cat?) How could this be, in a seasoned and conscientious worker?

Perhaps in the ideal dispatch center she would have been in a soundproof room, with no distractions. Instead, she was working thephones in an open room of about 1000 square feet, with a dozen dispatch consoles, other machinery, people going in and out, other workers talking between consoles, phones buzzing (the 911 phones sound different than the others, lending a more urgent ambience to the place).. Suppose, just suppose, that she had just finished up talking to a prior caller and at roughly the same time she spoke her last word or sound to that person she simultaneously punched the Zimmermann line on? How else to explain her understandably distraught reaction to the tape when it was played for her later? (Also, note to future planners to look into why she had to answer lines so fast--because others, some of them 911 lines, are ringing, and no one is picking them up.)

Also she was not "long since.. demoted to a different department" but rather, at least as I understand it, applied, tested and received her present position (see "burnout") prior to April 2.

Much does remain unanswered, but it's not Gahagan's doing. At the time the crime was discovered, the tape of Zimmermann's call was available. Who was the top-ranking person in the room at that time? The buck stops with Falk. I suggest she should have immediately gone down there. Next, the ex-director, Joe Norwick. Next, the shift supervisor. Oh yes, Norwick--here's a point: since the center's inception in 1988 there have been four directors. Every one but Norwick had prior public safety communications experience; two were hired from elsewhere and one was picked from within the ranks of existing employees. That's a bona fide occupational category, by the way--Public Safety Communications. It doesn't, or shouldn't, in my opinion, include ex-sheriff's deputies. Whole different game.

The coverup happened because no one wanted to talk about--because they didn;t really understand--the nature of the elephant in the room. With existing technology there is really no good way to track a wireless hangup quickly enough to respond to it. This has been mentioned here and there in media reports but not stressed enough. To put it in focus let's go back to pre-1998: no cell phones, no 911, but rather a seven-digit number to remember and call if you were in trouble. Not only one, but a separate such number for police, fire and medical emergencies. When cell phones came in everyone knew there was going to be a problem. Instead of one person getting off the road to stop at a house to call in that car accident ("you know, where you get off the Beltline to go to the Coliseum? Right there..") you got a dozen or more such calls. Middle of a blizzard and many more accidents to sort out? Need to hire a few more people right there. But first let's try mandatory overtime, and work people twelve hours at a time. Hugely popular move. People went for the extra money. Efficiency at the 11th hour of that shift go down a bit? Just maybe. Now we're back to burnout. Maybe that's the elephant.

Investigation to look into your very valid other questions? Absolutely, and soon.

Note to poster Michael: MPD had nothing to do with Gahagan, since she worked not for them, but for Dane County. Pretty basic fact here.

The Lost Albatross