A Call for Help

It takes a lot, but I am ashamed.

Ashamed of Dane County and the way it has responded to the murder of UW student Brittany Zimmermann.

As Brittany lay dying, she called out for help.

She did it in the way all of us are taught to do. She called 911.

Our 911 service is funded and exists for all sorts of emergencies, but never so much as when Brittany needed it. And it failed.

By all accounts the operator who fumbled Brittany’s call in those awful moments is a nice woman. Great. But niceness is not the issue.

The issue is competence. And truth.

One excuse after another has been trotted out for this egregious failure.

“The message was garbled.” As if a stabbing victim should speak concisely.

“The volume was low.” And when being stabbed, speak with a loud voice.

“The call traffic was heavy.” Perhaps she should have called at a more convenient time.

“The operator’s equipment was antiquated.” Huh? You can buy great iPod ear buds for twenty bucks.

“Too many people call 911.” True. But did Brittany’s situation not qualify?

It seems the only excuse that has not been made is that the sun was in the operator’s eyes.

Is not a 911 system, by its very nature, designed for these contingencies? How many 911 calls come in on a set schedule with great reception and a composed caller?

What is even worse is that after the operator’s transfer and three-day suspension (a pittance given the gravity of her mistake) her union rose to her defense. As if the 911 operator, Rita Gahagan, was somehow the victim. How embarrassing to the county and county workers.

Unions used to fight injustice. Now they protect it. No wonder their credibility has bottomed.

Ms. Gahagan was paid and trained to be a 911 staffer. She enjoyed the ample benefits of a county job. By taking that paycheck and showing up every day, she accepted the responsibility that came with her assignment, the responsibility that culminated at the precise moment Brittany Zimmermann called.

And when that time came Ms. Gahagan failed. Simple as that.

I feel for Ms. Gahagan. Surely this incident is difficult for her.

By all accounts, she could not have saved Brittany’s life. The only hope we have is that perhaps, if the call had been handled better, the operator could have brought police closer to the killer and justice for the Zimmermanns.

We all know that mistakes are forgivable. But failure to own them is not. Ms. Gahagan’s union hasn’t helped. They have clouded the already weak concept of government accountability. They give validity to the notion that the fix is always in, and that government workers have jobs in perpetuity regardless of performance.

Ms. Gahagan should perform a noble act and ask her union to silence itself out of respect to the Zimmermann family. The only sympathies available should lie with them.

The rest is embarrassing distraction.

But as bad as this has been, it could get worse. The Zimmermanns may have to watch as their daughter’s death becomes a political tool.

Nancy Mistele is taking on Kathleen Falk for the job of county executive. The 911 call will be an issue. Already it has become a hammer in the hands of local radio demagogues. Never mind that the 911 manager resigned, Gahagan was transferred and Falk apologized to the family and instituted a review.

But the truth is still there. Dane County could have done better by Brittany and her family.

But perhaps we can do penance. Let’s not prolong their pain by making her passing part of our political circus.

It might be the first call we get right.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write john@jrpinc.com.

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