- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Incoming D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday announced that he will dismiss E. Michael Latessa, the head of the city’s 911 emergency call center whose tenure was marred by labor disputes and dispatcher errors.

“We believe that it’s time to have a new director,” Mr. Fenty said. “Someone who can look at making sure that we’re not only using technology the best, but really making sure we inspire the work force to do the best they can in what can sometimes be very difficult work environments.”

Mr. Fenty selected Janice Quintana to run the Office of Unified Communications (OUC), which is responsible for handling the city’s roughly 1 million annual 911 calls, its 311 nonemergency calls, and calls to the mayor’s customer service hot line at 202/727-1000. The agency has about 400 employees and a budget this year of about $40 million.

Miss Quintana formerly served as the operations manager for the mayor’s customer service hot line. Mr. Fenty has said that he plans to discontinue the mayor’s hot line and direct those calls to the 311 nonemergency line.

Miss Quintana was one of two persons chosen by Mr. Fenty yesterday to replace existing agency heads. Brender L. Gregory, who has worked as acting assistant general manager of Metro, was chosen to replace Lisa Marin as director of the Office of Personnel.

Miss Quintana replaces Mr. Latessa, a former emergency medical services administrator and public safety director who briefly ran the emergency communications center in Norwalk, Conn., before coming to the District.

Mr. Latessa was hired to run the city’s 911 call center in January 2004 and oversee its transition from a division of the Metropolitan Police Department to an independent agency. He served as the agency’s interim director from its inception in October 2004 until he was confirmed by the D.C. Council in June.

The high point of his tenure was the agency’s move in September into a $116 million state-of-the-art facility at 2720 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

However, his tenure was marred by labor disputes and a string of errors in which dispatchers gave rescue workers incorrect or incomplete information.

• In October 2005, dispatchers sent police to the wrong quadrant of the city after a woman called 911 to report that she had been beaten and robbed near the Georgia Avenue Metro station in Northwest.

When the woman told the dispatcher that her attacker was coming back toward her, the dispatcher told her to try to make him follow her so that police officers could catch him.

Mr. Fenty, who represents the ward where the attack occurred, said at the time there was “zero excuse” for the mistake.

• Last month, dispatchers sent crews to an arson fire at a wrong address. Crews were sent to 1846 Varnum St. NW, instead of 1846 Vernon Street NW, more than four miles away. Four persons were injured in the fire.

• In January 2005, a firefighter responding to an apartment building fire in the 2300 block of Good Hope Road Southeast broke his back after falling 30 feet in an elevator shaft. Dispatchers failed to tell fire crews there had been an explosion from a buildup of natural gas. A 2-year-old girl died in the fire, and her 30-year-old mother was critically injured.

• After two surprise inspections in April 2005, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson decried working conditions at the former communications center, complaining that broken air conditioners often left the facility too hot and that when the units were turned on, they were so loud they drowned out emergency calls.

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said he found the women’s bathroom in disrepair and a door 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.

Council oversight hearings routinely drew disgruntled call-center employees, who testified that Mr. Latessa had created a hostile working environment.

“He was not the right fit for this agency,” said Michael Patterson, president of the National Association of Government Employees local R3-05, which represents the call takers. “He did not understand the needs of the employees and the District of Columbia.”

Mr. Patterson said he knows Miss Quintana and he has been impressed with her professionalism.

“I think Miss Quintana will work well with this agency,” he said. “She has good customer service skills and she understands the needs of this agency and its employees.”

Miss Quintana said officials will create a task force to focus on public safety procedures and assist in the transition process. She said she plans to continue working closely with the union.

“Our main focus really right now is on the call takers and on the staff there,” she said. “We really want to be focused on making sure that they’re getting what they need.”

Dan Tangherlini, the incoming city administrator, said yesterday he and Mr. Fenty visited the call center on separate occasions to get a better sense of how the center runs, but he would not discuss in detail yesterday why Mr. Latessa was not retained.

“I’d just go back to why we appointed Janice,” Mr. Tangherlini said. “Finding someone who is focused on customer service, someone who’s focused on building employee support for the overall mission — in that sense we found what we think is a great person to actually run [the center].”

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