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New 911 hire brings up alarms and arguments in Oak Lawn

  • Written by Bob Rakow

 

The hiring of former Oak Lawn Police Chief Bill Villanova to oversee the village’s emergency dispatch center is the latest move in an ongoing saga that has evolved since the service was outsourced late last year.

Villanova retired in April 2013 after a 36-year career with the Oak Lawn police department. He replaces Roger Bessette, who decided to step down. Villanova assumed control of the dispatch center on Monday.

Trustee Robert Streit said the appointment of the former chief signals discord within the dispatch center.

“It demonstrates how serious the problems really are,” Streit said.

Streit voted against the privatization of the dispatch center and has continually railed against the performance of the dispatchers, who work for Norcomm Public Safety Communications. He maintains that they are not well trained or familiar with the village.

The appointment of Villanova comes just days after the village released more than 40 complaints about the 911 dispatchers submitted by Oak Lawn firefighters.

Many of the complaints are serious and prove that dispatchers are putting residents’ lives in jeopardy, Streit said.

Mayor Sandra Bury and Village Manager Larry Deetjen maintain that the complaints are not nearly as severe as Streit portrays.

“This is not something new,” Deetjen said. “Would we like to be perfect? Yes. We’re dealing with humans.”

Trustee Alex Olejniczak said Streit’s opposition to privatization of the dispatch center is politically motivated.

“Is it really an issue? Did these things exist prior to the (dispatch center) change over? Absolutely they did,” Olejniczak said. “He’s trying to get elected.”

Streit, the veteran member of the board, is up for re-election in 2015 and faces a challenge from political newcomer Scott Hollis. Streit retain his seat in a surprisingly close election four years ago. Some political observers believe he’s beatable this time around.

Olejniczak added that the village would receive complaints from residents or face lawsuits if the dispatch center was performing ineffectively.

“He’s making Oak Lawn look bad,” Olejniczak said. “If you listen to Bob Streit, Oak Lawn is going to hell in a handbasket.”

Streit said the firefighters’ complaints highlight some serious problems within the dispatch center. Complaints about firefighters or paramedics being sent to the wrong address, delays in dispatch, failure to dispatch the correct units and the wrong codes used during dispatch are among the grievances.

“I’m disappointed that the administration is trying to downplay the seriousness,” Streit said.

Perhaps the most serious complaint is outlined in an email to Assistant Fire Chief Scott Bowman from Battalion Chief Michael Jensen regarding the Oct. 5 fatal accident at 95th Street and Cicero Avenue that led to the death of three people, including two Little Company of Mary sisters.

The email asks why there was six-minute delay between the first call being received by dispatch and first responders being sent to the scene.

Bury criticized Streit for using the tragedy to further his campaign against the dispatch center.

Streit said he had no choice but to point out the complaint.

“For me, it’s an unfortunate incident that had to be addressed,” Streit said. “It happened. The facts speak for themselves. Address the issue. Address the delays. These are serious matters.”

Deetjen said the accident remains under investigation. He added that experienced dispatchers were working in the 911 center the afternoon of the accident.

“Our Oak Lawn regional dispatch had two veterans manning phones and both undertaking the critical functions of emergency call taking and emergency dispatching in addition to support from Nordcomm that Sunday afternoon,” Deetjen said.

At the Oct. 28 village board meeting, Streit distributed a packet that summarized firefighters’ concerns about dispatch dating back to February. But the packet did not include that emails that detailed the complaints.

Village Clerk Jane Quinlan chastised Streit for not including that documentation.

“If you’re going to get half of the information, why not get all of the information?” said Quinlan, who provided the emails to the media the following day.

“Now you know the details of things,” Quinlan said. “I wanted you to see the explanation. I’m not holding anything back.”

Streit believes otherwise.

“(Mayor Bury) was aware that problems existed,” he said.

He said he requested the firefighters’ complaints several months ago, but his Freedom of Information requests were denied.

Bury and Deetjen, he said, were instrumental in denying the requests. They were released only after Streit filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, he said.

Quinlan said neither the mayor nor the manager are involved in processing FOIA requests. She added that no one was aware of the complaints until Fire Chief George Sheets brought them to her on Oct. 24. The complaints were sent to the attorney’s general’s office on Oct. 27.

There was no effort to hide things,” said Quinlan, who said she was “shocked” when the complaints turned up.

Quinlan added that Streit has incorrectly portrayed the relationship between the village and the attorney general’s office.

“We never get nervous when we get something from the attorney general’s office,” she said.