Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who Ya Gonna Call?

I know the Dane County 911 Center has become the political kickball de jure over the past year, and I'm very glad of the shortcomings that have been exposed and addressed to some degree. But I'd like to take a moment to try and draw a line between what constitutes a legitimate gripe and what's just piling on.

By now you've read the tragic story of Farrell Kurlish, the 32-year-old man who was found dead in his car last March, poisoned by a carbon monoxide leak. The story has generated quite a bit of controversy, because the vehicle sat out on the street idling for seven hours after a neighbor phoned in a complaint to the 911 center's non-emergency line.

Mind you, this was a call to the center's non-emergency line, and if you read the transcript of the call, at no point does the caller indicate there was any kind of problem that required police intervention.

Call taker: "Police and fire."
Caller: "Yeah, there’s a pickup truck that’s
been idling in front of my house for one half-hour. Is that legal?"
Call taker: "Sure."
Caller: "Hmm?"
Call taker: "Yeah, sure."
Caller: "In the street?"
Call taker: "Uh-huh."
Caller: "Holy (expletive), what’s the town
coming to?"

And at that point, without any further ado, the caller hangs up. With that 20-20 hindsight we always hear about, yeah, it might have helped to have dispatched police officers to the scene immediately. But what the 911 Center's biggest critics are trying to say is that, based on those 35 syllables of information from the caller, the 911 operator should have sent help, or at least followed up on the call.

Now, none of the news stories that I've seen so far (that I haven't written myself) make note of the fact that this same 911 operator, Nathan Waite, was in fact commended for his performance in the line of duty as recently as January, when he gave instructions on birthing a premature child to a father parked on the side of a snowy road near McFarland. At the time, county officials hailed Waite as the hero who saved the day by keeping his head, making sure the panicked mother and father on the other end kept their heads, and calmly talking the husband through procedures as delicate as using a shoe lace to tie off an umbilical cord.

I myself covered the press conference that was thrown together by County Executive Kathleen Falk's staff as an election loomed against a foe who had made the 911 center a key issue. While I'm not surprised that the County Executive has not arranged a press conference in his defense, I did get a chance to meet Mr. Waite and chat with him briefly.

Nathan Waite is competent, humble, young and kind of quiet. I certainly don't see him as being "complacent," or lacking "the appropriate attitude of concern," to quote the internal investigation into the matter. In fact, I posit he reacted in exactly the right way.

My tax dollars pay Nathan Waite's salary, just the same as they pay for the police officers that patrol our streets. As such, in no way do I want either 911 operators or police officers wasting time responding to calls about every vehicle left running in the street. Following that logic, there should be a police response every time a garden hose is left running, a door is left ajar or a dog is heard barking in the distance.

Nathan Waite is a very busy man with a lot of important duties on his plate who was reacting to a stupid question from a person who was at best lazy and at worst an imbecile. The caller to the non-emergency line didn't say anything was wrong. She didn't sound like she was under duress. She certainly didn't open her front door and walk the thirty feet to the idling car and peer inside to see if everything was all right, which could potentially have saved a life.

The caller simply peered out a slat in the blinds and did what misanthropic old ladies are prone to do -- she complained to the first person who would listen. You can ask any 911 operator, and they will tell you the non-emergency line is a source of more useless complaints than Charter Communications' customer service.

Now I agree with Police Captain Carl Gloede that some kind of written procedures should be implemented to sort out non-emergency calls that might have some kind of urgent nature to them. It certainly could have helped in the Lake's Edge Park murder last fall.

But trying to link Farrell Kurlish's death to a failure on the part of the 911 Center is akin to kicking an opponent when they're down. Whatever political point or progress critics of the 911 Center are trying to make gets lost, especially when hard working civil servants like Nathan Waite get dragged into the fray to have their reputations tarnished.

I hope Waite sticks it out through the coming weeks of punishment and retraining he's going to be put through, then goes on to become a supervisor at the 911 Center. Maybe we can even talk him into running for County Exec.


Anonymous said...

Bravo. Thank you for writing this. 911 dispatchers serve an incredibly important function and for one as accomplished as Mr. Waite to be punished for something that (clearly) wasn't his fault is beyond desperate on the media's part.

Dustin Christopher said...

Don't lay the blame solely on the media for this, Anon. The media is acting as a megaphone for the voices that are out there. There are a lot of officials in this county that could step forward and call this situation what it is, but they choose not to because of the political pressure that's out there.