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CSEA sues Nassau PD over 911 operator training

A Nassau County 911 call center where operators

A Nassau County 911 call center where operators are manning call taking consoles in Mineola. (March 15, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau's largest public-sector labor union has filed a lawsuit against the county contending the police department failed to train 911 operators on advanced emergency dispatching procedures, despite obtaining state grants earmarked for it.

The suit, filed in State Supreme Court by the Civil Service Employees Association last month, also alleges that senior Nassau officials instructed the county's roughly 150 police communications operators to sign roster sheets attesting to receiving the training and to "not ask questions."

"By not providing this essential training, the public is at risk of substandard call responses," said Lou Stober, a Garden City labor attorney representing the union. "If they are not training these operators . . . the public at large is put at risk."

County Attorney John Ciampoli said his office and the police department are conducting an internal review of the training requirements outlined in the lawsuit. "But, at first blush it would appear the Police Department is providing adequate training for its 911 operators," he said.

The suit comes as the police department's Internal Affairs division investigates the shooting death of Hofstra student Andrea Rebello during a May home invasion in Uniondale during which she was held as a hostage. Questions have been raised about the communication between the 911 operator and police officers sent to the scene.

In 2008, Nassau was designated by the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services as a Public Safety Answering Point -- an advanced 911 center that can receive emergency calls from wireless phones.

To earn that designation, and the millions in funding that goes along with it, 911 operators must get a minimum of 21 hours of in-service classroom training, including how to handle hostage situations or terrorist attacks as well as the use of new communications equipment, Stober said.

CSEA president Jerry Laricchiuta said instead of providing classroom training, police supervisors distributed short instructional pamphlets detailing new procedures.

"The county needs to follow the law and train these 911 operators," Laricchiuta said. "There is a wide scope of issues that require training that are vital to protecting public safety."

The suit asks the department to provide the training but does not ask for monetary compensation.

Ciampoli noted that operators receive at least a year of training before taking their first 911 call and get "ongoing systematic training" afterward.

Unclear how money spentThe state allocated a total of $3.4 million to Nassau between 2008-2012 through the "Local Enhanced Wireless 9-1-1 program," which reimburses county governments for communications costs related to dispatching wireless 911 calls, according to documents provided by Homeland Security and Emergency Services spokesman Peter Cutler. A percentage of those funds were to be used for training, though Cutler could not itemize those dollars.

It is unclear how the police department spent the state training dollars.

Insp. Kenneth Lack, a police spokesman, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Gary Volpe, the CSEA unit president for the 911 operators, said the absence of training could be the difference between life and death.

For example, operators would be instructed on how to classify and prioritize certain 911 calls, such as a "large fight," Volpe said. In that instance, the call-taker must ask the right questions to determine whether it's a fistfight among three men or a large melee involving rival gangs, which would require a faster police response.

"If the 911 operator puts in the wrong call type or misinterprets what's going on, there could be a delay in waiting for assistance and the bad guy could get away," said Volpe, who worked as a 911 operator for 16 years. He now works exclusively in the union office, representing 911 operators.

Hostage situation citedIn the Hofstra shooting, Nassau Police Officer Nikolas Budimlic accidentally killed Rebello as parolee Dalton Smith held her in a chokehold and pointed a gun at the cop. Budimlic did not know he was walking into a hostage situation when he responded to the call, according to James Carver, head of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association.

The 911 call was "never transmitted as a hostage situation," and Budimlic believed he was responding to a robbery in progress, Carver said.

Stober said the robbery could have turned out differently if the 911 operator had received the enhanced training and streamlined protocols envisioned by the state.

Laricchiuta disagreed, noting that the Rebello shooting took place so quickly that "I don't know if a million hours of training would have changed what happened."

Volpe said he first mentioned the need for training to his supervisors three years ago and the union later filed a grievance with the department.

In August 2011, the police department scheduled three rounds of training for the operators. "Such training is necessary to assist this command in complying with New York State regulations," department officials wrote in an Aug. 15, 2011, memo which was included in the lawsuit.

The department canceled the training a month later, according to a follow-up department memo also included in the suit. The training has yet to be rescheduled, Volpe said.

Nonetheless, 911 operators have been asked to sign roster sheets stating that they received the training, the suit said. The operators complied for fear of going against department brass but some jotted statements such as "not trained" next to their names, Volpe said.

"They were told to sign the roster and not ask questions as the [Police Communications Operators Supervisors] did not have any answers for them," the suit states.

It is unclear why the police brass has been resistant to providing the classroom training, but Laricchiuta contends the department does not want to bring in more staff on overtime to cover for operators out on training days.

Stober said "the cost of backfilling 150 people on overtime is minuscule" compared with the prospect of getting hit with a lawsuit by members of the public for mistakes made by operators.

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