911 operator had history of errors, sleeping on job
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/13/08
It took the death of Darlene Dukes for a 911 operator to finally lose her job in Fulton County.
Gina Conteh survived nearly 12 years handling emergency calls despite a personnel record that includes fights with co-workers, chronic tardiness, insubordination, repeated sleeping on the job and numerous mistakes routing emergency calls.
She was fired last week after a mistake that delayed an ambulance for nearly an hour to a Johns Creek woman who died.
Dukes died on Aug. 2 from a blood clot in her lung. Conteh first sent help to southwest Atlanta rather than north Fulton. It took 25 minutes before another dispatcher realized the were looking in the wrong place.
It took another 20 minutes before Fulton officials realized they had dispatched fire and police but not ambulance, which then did not arrive until about 2 p.m.
Fulton’s inability to get rid of Conteh before the death of Darlene Dukes underscores a frequent criticism for a county often called inept, inefficient and filled with sloppy employees who don’t care and can’t be fired no matter what their transgressions.
Rob Simms, the chief of staff to former Commission Chairman Mike Kenn, said poor employees routinely got in the way of doing business and getting rid of them was "impossible."
He pointed to Sheriff Myron Freeman’s inability to fire several deputies who were cited for errors that allowed a prisoner on trial to escape, bludgeon a deputy and then kill a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent. Brian Nichols will go to trial for murder on Sept. 22
Six were later reinstated.
"Essentially you can’t be fired," said Simms. "There’s no accountability. How do you manage or supervise in an environment where there’s no accountability?"
Rep. Mark Burkhalther, R-Johns Creek, has risen to the powerful speaker pro tem post as one of the most vocal critics of Fulton government. He said the mistakes made by Conteh and the death of Dukes adds to the drive to split Fulton into two counties.
"It’s well known that Fulton County is quick to hire, rarely disciplines and perpetuates an inefficient government," said Burkhalter. "Probably the best description of Fulton County: a bloated jobs program. …Every day Fulton government wakes up and attempts to go to work it is evident that we need to restructure."
Neither Fulton County Manager Zachary Williams or personnel director Paris Brown would comment for this story.
Tom Andrews, who retired as county manager last year, said civil service protections that require documented progressive discipline and allows for a series of appeals are too protective of bad employees.
"We have fired people," Andrews said. "It’s a long and tortuous process. Does it affect overall management? Certainly it does."
As Conteh’s files were reviewed Wednesday, Commissioner Lynne Riley learned that the 911 center wasn’t accredited, as had been claimed.
"It was an assumption on everyone’s part that because it was referenced on its Web site that it was a fact," the District 3 commissioner said. "This definitely questions the county’s credibility."
Conteh’s work record has come under scrutiny because of Duke’s death on Aug. 2 and Conteh’s mistakes that delayed sending help. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the file through the Georgia Open Records Law.
Conteh took her job in Fulton’s 911 center after working for a local retirement community. She also was a clerk at Quik Trip and sold vacation packges. She listed a high school diploma and associates degree in social work, both in Indiana, where she was born.
Records show Conteh began a rollercoaster ride in 1996 when she began her work in Fulton.
Her file includes several evaluations that applaud her knowledge of the system, her attitude toward co-workers and ability to properly handle calls. In 1998, her supervisor wrote, "Gina works well with her fellow employees… Gina is a very good employee." In 2005, she was commended twice for perfect attendance.
At the same time, her record shows at least seven suspensions for everything from fighting with co-workers to sleeping on the job to failing to follow procedures. She routinely complained supervisors are picking on her.
In April 2003, Conteh was suspended for falling asleep at her desk so deeply that she tumbled from behind her console and scraped her left ear as she fell. Conteh explained she was leaning over to pick up paper when she fell, according to the file.
She filed a worker’s compensation report on her injury. Her superiors did not buy her story.
She also had several screaming matches with co-workers and had to be sent to anger management classes as recently as last year.
She had numerous incidents of mishandling calls, beginning with a string of six errors from December 2006 to January 2008 that resulted in a three-day suspension.
And Conteh was twice spared from being fired. The first time was in April 2004, when she again fell asleep at her desk.
After an appeal, she kept her job, but was moved from a morning shift to an afternoon shift, records show. Another attempt to fire her a year later fizzled.
Conteh has the right to appeal this most recent firing.