We all take comfort in the knowledge that if we ever face an emergency, we can call for help. If we witness a hit-and-run or get robbed, we can dial 911 and help will be on the way in minutes. We spend our hard-earned tax dollars to ensure that this vital hotline is in operation 24/7 and that any call made is taken seriously. It goes without saying that having emergency services at our disposal saves lives.

So it was particularly alarming to hear that Brittany Zimmermann, who was murdered in her apartment last April, placed a 911 call that day. The dispatcher did not return the call after erroneously concluding the call wasn’t a real emergency, and as she was apparently busy with other calls, failed to dispatch a police vehicle to investigate, as is required by law. In addition, there was an effort to cover up this fact when Zimmermann was found dead — in fact, the call’s existence was not confirmed until a month after her murder. As a result, incorrect information was relayed to investigators following the murder that led police on a two-week wild goose chase, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

The cover-up is particularly scandalous in light of the 911 Center’s importance to the community and its position as a trusted public safety agency. The director of the Dane County 911 Center, Joe Norwick, misled reporters by saying the dispatcher remained at her job when she had, in fact, been transferred to a different county job. Norwick said there was no content in the Zimmermann call when apparently, according to Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, it contained significant evidence. Norwick and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk also erroneously claimed that the Madison Police Department wanted to keep the existence of Zimmermann’s call secret.

It’s unsurprising in light of all the revelations that Norwick is stepping down on Sept. 19. Norwick was handpicked by Falk in 2007 over more qualified candidates. In addition, The Isthmus reported this week that the 911 Center’s Oversight Board failed to conduct performance evaluations for the past five years. Norwick formerly served as chair of the Oversight Board, and evaluations were not even conducted by his successor, Ron Boylan.

The 911 Center has also systematically buried employee and public complaints. One former employee complained of an increase in “workload, expectations, and micromanagement” without being provided “adequate training.” The 911 Center also does not systematically keep records of complaints from emergency service providers like the police and fire departments. How can we expect the 911 Center to correct its shortcomings if they go undocumented?

Frankly, these incidents reflect badly on Falk, who is running for reelection this year. She should not have picked Norwick — who was apparently in over his head, according to reports by fellow board members and 911 Center employees — to run the 911 Center. She initially claimed no mistakes were made by the 911 Center and covered for Norwick’s misstatements, blaming the media and the MPD for leaking information, and waiting weeks before issuing an apology to Zimmermann’s family.  

Incompetence and corruption at the 911 Center is intolerable and should prompt immediate reforms. Since 2004, there have been occasional system crashes and the need for a new computer system for the 911 Center has been evident. The 911 Center also lacks the technology to triangulate the location of calls placed by cell phones. This has created controversy as Falk and the 911 Center Oversight Board have disagreed over what the improvement priorities should be, given the limited funds.

The lesson here is the importance of adequately funding and competently running public services. No one knows whether Brittany Zimmermann’s life could have been saved had there been a more competent dispatcher, but at least there would have been a chance of capturing the murderer sooner. Now it is time for adequate staffing, funding and technology modernization to be made the No. 1 priority. Reforms should have input from 911 Center employees and the public, who have been scorned by officials at the 911 Center for too long.

It is good news that the $600,000 budget increase for the center will allow it to increase staff and implement a new countywide radio system to help first-responders communicate more effectively. However, the needed hardware and software improvements to the 911 Center’s computer systems are unlikely to be made until 2010 at the earliest.

Beyond ensuring that adequate funds are available to vital agencies, officials need to root out corruption so that competent officials are in contact and abreast of problems. Frequent audits must be run, better records must be kept and officials must create an environment where whistleblowers can raise red flags without fear of repercussions. What is clear is that no one can really sleep soundly in Madison under the current state of affairs.

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and economics.