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County 911 director to leave post Hetherman is taking sick days. He says stress worsened blood pressure.


Of The Morning Call By SCOTT KRAUS

Northampton County's embattled 911 director is on his way out.

William J. Hetherman, hired in 1998 to spearhead the county's effort to take over emergency dispatch services from Electronic Data Systems Inc., has been placed on medical leave pending his departure.

Hetherman, who earns $46,210 a year, said he and Administration Director James Hickey reached the decision July 27, two days before the one-year anniversary of the county's takeover of the system from EDS of Plano, Texas.

"From Jim's perspectiveI was probably not managing to the optimum level he wanted, and we decided it was time for me to go," said Hetherman, who said the high stress job has exacerbated his high blood pressure.

Hetherman, 53, of Palmer Township, said he is interviewing for a new job in consulting and did not give a timetable for his departure.

Human resources director Daniel Polanski said he could not comment on Hetherman's status, but employees placed on medical leave are able to use up all of their accumulated sick, personal and vacation days.

Hickey would not comment on Hetherman's departure or explain Hetherman's belief that Hickey was critical of his performance.

"Bill is on medical leave, it is a personnel matter, and I am not at liberty to discuss it," Hickey said.

He said he has been discussing moving 911 services under the supervision of county Sheriff James Hawbecker, but plans for the transition are still under development.

He said news of Hetherman's departure should not be interpreted as an indication the county's 911 system has serious problems.

"This is a good operation," Hickey said. "It is a good operation that has room for improvement, and it is going to get better. We are improving working conditions, improving a 30-year-old radio infrastructure, and improving the quality of the dispatch team. That has nothing to do with Mr. Hetherman."

Republican Councilman Ron Angle, a frequent critic of county-run 911 services, said Hetherman's departure demonstrates the county's dispatch system has problems, despite Hickey's contention it is improving.

"It is pretty evident nothing in the county is as rosy as they say it is," Angle said.

Democratic Council President Wayne Grube, another critic of the system, said the county should move quickly, in concert with the sheriff, to hire a 911 expert to head the department, even if it means offering an increased salary.

"I think Bill Hetherman tried to take on too many things," Grube said. "I think he spread himself too thin. He had knowledge about the radios, but I don't think he had the entire knowledge or background in the technology it takes to run a 911 center. You have to have people brought up and trained in that system."

County Executive Glenn Reibman said Thursday morning he had not received a formal resignation from Hetherman and could not comment on how he would be replaced.

"That is a career service position, and unless Jim is changing anything, it will be filled the way any career service position is filled," Reibman said.

Career service positions are filled by a four-to-eight member committee, including, in this case, at least one representative of the 911 center, that interviews and tests internal and outside applicants before making a hiring recommendation.

The county 911 system has been controversial since County Executive Bill Brackbill hired MCI Systemhouse, which was later purchased by EDS, to provide emergency dispatch services in 1997.

Criticism of the system's performance fueled Reibman's successful 1997 election campaign, helping him defeat Brackbill.

When he took office in January 1998, Reibman moved quickly to wrench control of 911 from EDS; in April 1998, the county hired Hetherman, a retired communications specialist with experience in emergency dispatch services, to oversee the transition.

The county took control of 911 in July 1999, and the decision spawned a one-year legal battle resulting in a federal court order that the county pay the company a $6 million settlement. The county appealed that decision.

But that hasn't quieted criticism of the system among some members of County Council or the law enforcement and emergency services community, who said the county has done little to improve service in the last year.

Council narrowly rejected a plan to hire a company to conduct a performance audit of 911 at its last meeting on Aug. 3., with Grube casting the tie-breaking vote, saying the county deserves more time to improve the system.

Grube said he cast his vote because he has confidence in Hawbecker's leadership and he believes the sheriff will help straighten out problems in the system.

-- Doris (, August 11, 2000

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