The Village of Oak Lawn and Norcomm Public Safety Communications, Inc. held an “Open House” event on the evening of January 7, 2015, at Village Hall. The event was held in response to criticism of the dispatch service provided by Norcomm, to allay any concerns and answer any questions about the service. While the event did address certain issues, it raised further questions.
The tour started out with a presentation by Michael Tillman, Vice President at Norcomm, touting the history of Norcomm’s parent company, Superior Ambulance Service, Inc.
The new Interim Director of the communications center, Bill Villanova, was then introduced and his background biography was outlined. Villanova said he and Tillman worked well together.
“I’m very satisfied with how we’re going,” Villanova said. “We’ve got a long way to go to get to where we want to be, but we’re going.”
Tillman then went into his own background, as well as that of the Team Leaders at Oak Lawn Emergency Communication Center (OLECC). He then briefly outlined the training procedure for new hires.
After another history lesson of Norcomm, Tillman went on to outline the Request For Proposal (RFP) process that the Village went through while making the decision to outsource dispatch services to Norcomm. In March of 2013, Norcomm was contacted by the Village, informing them that the RFP process had opened. The request went out to a handful of companies.
Village Manager Larry Deetjen interjected, elaborating on the presentation. “Those dates are important for everyone to remember,” Deetjen said. “The decision to move in this direction… was made by a prior Board… the former Mayor and the former Trustees.” Deetjen went on to say, “Thereafter, there was an election, and the current Board and Mayor were handed what had already been put into play.”
When asked to clarify which Board of Trustees voted to outsource the dispatch service, Deetjen prevaricated, saying “The decision to pursue looking at the corporations… that were providing dispatch service… was made by a prior Board. The decision to move forward and engage Norcomm contractually was made by the current Board that’s in office.”
Deetjen and Tillman then went on to stress that any employment expenses–such as pensions, health insurance, workman’s compensation, and overtime–are all paid for by Norcomm. The Village’s costs remain stable, according to the contract, and do not fluctuate due to personnel expenses.
The next phase of Tillman’s presentation dealt with the hiring and training that Norcomm dispatchers receive. After the interview and background check process is complete, Norcomm hires are to be given 260 hours of classroom training. This is approximately one to two months of training. “Those classes are kind of basic,” Tillman said, “Telecommunicator 101 for both law enforcement and fire and EMS services.”
“Then there’s… a lot of map-based testing, and stuff like that,” Tillman added.
Once a new hire graduates Norcomm’s training classroom, they are then assigned to a training officer at the OLECC for practical observation.
Two dispatch supervisors then walked the audience through the standard call procedures. They listed standard questions asked of a caller and showed off a handy book of standard procedures for different emergency situations.
Larry Deetjen then spoke a bit more, first about AT&T’s center on 95th Street, that hosts a lot of communications infrastructure that assists with dispatching. He then spoke about the team at OLECC. “We’ve made a major change. We’re not perfect by any means. We brought in Bill Villanova to assist.”
“This call center that we have here,” Deetjen continued, “…I think is just outstanding. And our job is to retain that, yet also be very very responsive to our customers and the cost.”
Trustee Terry Vorderer was in attendance, and he echoed his earlier statements at Board meetings. “This transition has come with a little bit of political negativity… our former dispatchers have been using social media to undermine what’s going on. I constantly read, and I hear from a fellow Trustee, that there’s hundreds of complaints out there about improper dispatching. Personally, I have never received a complaint as an elected official about anything this dispatch center does.” Vorderer then went on to say “Every complaint is legitimate, and every complaint should be looked at. And I know the Chief [Interim Director Villanova] has put together a procedure to address that.”
Deetjen noted that the Village has recently made available on its website statistics related to the dispatch service. These statistics can be found on the Village’s website, under Departments, or click this link. Deetjen expressed his confidence in the service provided, based on these statistics.
In light of the recent revelation that Police Chief Murray wasn’t even aware of dispatch issues within the Police Department, Deetjen was asked if he was confident that all issues with dispatch were reaching him, to be able to put on the Village website. “I am confident of those statistics and what they are.”
“What we’re doing now,” Villanova explained, “with complaints, or what we call quality assurance checks, is we’re maintaining a record of every one of them. That wasn’t being done before.”
Interestingly, Mayor Sandra Bury also stated that prior to the switch to Norcomm, there was no documentation maintained about complaints, either. The new policy of documentation went into effect December 1, 2014.
When asked why this procedure was implemented, Villanova replied, “Because when I came in in November, the one thing that was being asked about was all these complaints. There was no real documentation, either supporting or not supporting them.”
When asked why this event wasn’t held back in November when the complaints were at the forefront, Deetjen responded, “I think there’s a couple reasons. First of all, we haven’t even been in operation for a year. I was astonished… to hear attacks… and not even giving it an opportunity to get its sea-legs, to get its experience.” He then went on, “We started the process in the fall, of what can we do to have a more analytic look at what’s going on, and are we doing the job right. We brought Bill [Villanova] on board, and he looked at a lot of these complaints and determined that they have no validity.”
“I would have preferred to wait until January 22nd, but we were working on this in September. Given the amount of attention, this issue was getting. For all the right reasons, and all the wrong reasons.”
Bury and Tillman then introduced the President and CEO of Superior Ambulance, David B. Hill III. Given the amount of attention lavished onto Norcomm’s parent company and its other services, Hill and Deetjen were asked if there had been any discussions about outsourcing any other services to Superior or its subsidiaries. Both men answered “No.”
The event then moved on to an observation area, where the dispatch room could be seen. It was explained to the guests what each position was responsible for.
When asked how many dispatchers were currently on staff, Tillman first answered 12 full-time employees. He then corrected himself, saying “Seventeen. Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t count the new people.” These numbers are notably lower than the minimum staffing number of 23 required by the service contract between the Village and Norcomm.
When asked how many of those 17 dispatchers were on staff since the switch to Norcomm, the answer was 2. This would be a personnel turnover rate of approximately 91%. One attendee commented that such a turnover rate would explain many of the service complaints about unfamiliarity with the service area.