- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

Call takers and dispatchers at the city’s troubled 911 communications center blame the agency’s director for the center’s morale problems and deteriorating performance.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is investigating a rash of calls in recent weeks during which call takers at the 911 communications center have sent firetrucks and ambulances to the wrong addresses or provided bad information.

According to copies of affidavits filed with the city’s Office of Labor Relations and obtained by The Times, employees say the director of the Office of Unified Communications, E. Michael Latessa, has ignored personnel rules, denied requests for advance sick leave for employees with medical emergencies, and subjected employees to demeaning, insensitive and even racist insults.

“There’s no way a person can effectively do this job with all that on them,” said Deborah Ennis, president of the National Association of Government Employees Local R3-05, which represents civilian call takers and dispatchers formerly employed by the Metropolitan Police Department. “It’s impossible.”

One complaint claims that in November, Mr. Latessa confronted a new hire who had not been issued a uniform. David Fuller, a former U.S. Air Force avionics technician, said Mr. Latessa told him in front of witnesses that he “needs other clothing because he looks like a boy standing in front of a 7-Eleven.” Mr. Fuller, who is black, complained and was later fired during his probationary period.

In another complaint, witnesses say Mr. Latessa called a black employee “Buckwheat.”

“None of that ever happened,” Mr. Latessa told The Times in a phone interview last week. “It’s interesting that they bring that up because of the experience of my predecessor. They know that kind of stuff works.”

Before Mr. Latessa was hired, Mayor Anthony A. Williams hired Howard A. Baker in August 2003 to head the newly formed agency. Mr. Baker resigned 80 days later, after reports surfaced that he had made racially insensitive jokes in front of staff members.

Ed Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said he thinks Mr. Latessa is doing the “right thing” in enforcing rules and holding employees accountable, but he said he takes the complaints seriously.

“I definitely have some concern about what’s happening in that agency,” Mr. Reiskin said, noting that before October, the civilian call takers worked for either the Metropolitan Police Department or the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Employees are also critical of Mr. Latessa’s policy of denying all requests for advance sick leave.

In one case, Assistant Director Everett Lott denied sick leave for a 14-year employee’s upcoming surgery.

In a handwritten note at the bottom of the request form, Mr. Lott directed the employee to request time off under the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act. Under the act, requests for leave must come from the employee. And once an employee’s accrued leave is exhausted, leave under the act is unpaid, so employees must cover the costs of insurance during the leave or risk being dropped by their insurance carrier.

According to documents obtained by The Times, in at least two more cases, managers overturned decisions by supervisors to grant sick leave to pregnant employees and advised them to request leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“We’re just fighting for things we shouldn’t have to,” said Jacqueline White, one of the call takers who was pregnant and was denied sick leave in January.

In another case, management denied a requested shift change to a senior call taker who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. The call taker wanted to work an overnight shift to accommodate her chemotherapy treatments.

Other employees with less seniority were given the shift, even after her request.

Mr. Latessa said he was just enforcing rules that were enforced inconsistently in the past.

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