- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

A D.C. Council member is decrying “lousy working conditions” at the city’s new 911 call center after conducting two surprise inspections of the facility.

Council member Phil Mendelson said he most recently visited the Public Safety Communications Center in Northwest on April 15 and found broken air conditioners, telephones, desks and chairs.

“The people who take these calls have a difficult job,” said Mr. Mendelson, chairman of the judiciary committee, which has oversight of the call center. “We make it harder on them by giving them lousy working conditions.”

Mr. Mendelson’s inspections followed complaints about the center’s low morale and poor performance, which The Washington Times reported in March.

On Monday, two employees were taken to a hospital suffering minor smoke inhalation after a morning fire in the center.

Fire department spokeswoman Kathryn Friedman said an electrical short caused the fire, which began about 7:30 a.m. as contract workers were performing maintenance duties in the facility.

During his inspection, Mr. Mendelson said he noticed broken air conditioners on all three floors had left the secure facility too hot. When the units were turned on, they were so loud that they drowned out emergency calls, he said.

The women’s bathroom was in disrepair and a door was missing from a stall, he said. Telephones, desks and chairs were broken, and employee break rooms and a coat closet were used to store broken furniture.

“Air conditioners and clean, functioning bathrooms are staples that the administration must provide. There’s no two ways about it,” Mr. Mendelson said.

The center’s director, E. Michael Latessa, said he “wasn’t even aware we had a coat closet.”

He disputed Mr. Mendelson’s assertion that the air conditioning was broken, saying employees had turned it off shortly before the council member’s visit.

Mr. Latessa also said the women’s bathroom stall door had been recently “vandalized” and was being repaired. He said all the phones were in working order, although wear and tear has caused some of the jacks to break.

He challenged Mr. Mendelson’s statement that an employee break room was used to store broken furniture.

“I don’t know what break room he was referring to,” Mr. Latessa said. “If we have a broken chair in the break room, it’s because they removed it from the floor so that nobody would sit on it and get hurt.”

The building opened in July 2001 at a cost of nearly $10 million. It will be replaced by the new Unified Communications Center in December, a $100 million facility being built on the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital. The Public Safety Communications Center will serve as a backup and a training facility.

The center’s problems came to light in March after fire officials began investigating five incidents in which dispatchers sent rescue crews to the wrong addresses between Jan. 11 and Feb. 21.

At an April 14 oversight hearing, Mr. Mendelson asked Mr. Latessa if he was aware of any other mistakes made since the beginning of the fiscal year. Mr. Latessa said he was not aware of any other mistakes.

Mr. Mendelson said he had a list of other instances in March and April in which dispatchers sent emergency workers to the wrong addresses.

“The only thing worse than people calling and not being able to get through — and you have improved those numbers substantially — is to have mistakes with regard to what that call is about,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Mr. Latessa asked Mr. Mendelson to identify the addresses, and the council member listed seven.

“I’m familiar with most of those addresses,” Mr. Latessa said. “Some of those incidents were not the operators’ mistakes.”

Mr. Latessa promised he would submit to Mr. Mendelson a list of all the mistakes dispatchers have made in recent weeks.

Mr. Latessa told The Times that he had reviewed the calls Mr. Mendelson noted and found that four of the seven were the fault of communications workers. He said he found no other dispatching errors during the course of the review.

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