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In the face of on-going staff shortages at the Flint (Mich.) police department, a consultant has recommended taking a drastic step—stop responding to any incident that isn’t a crime in progress or an immediate life-and-death emergency, and refer all other callers to the city’s Web site to make a report. The consultants also recommended moving police dispatching services to Genesee County’s comm center. The intent is to free up more patrol and investigative time to handle a rate of violent crimes higher than Detroit, and reduce a constant backlog of calls for service. At its core, the problem is caused by the department’s philosophy that “no call is considered too minor to warrant a response and no case is too small to warrant an investigation,” the consultant said. Discretionary patrol time per hour has increased from three minutes per hour in 2010 to 15 minutes in 2014 through various staffing changes. But the consultants say there are no more easy steps to improving that figure to 30 minutes per hour, the recommended level. Download (pdf) the consultant’s full report, including the comm center recommendations (p. 64).

A member of Congress has fired off a letter criticizing a proposal to add Russian navigation satellites to the technologies that would help locate American 911 callers, leading to a bizarre newspaper article and a sharp rebuttal by public safety groups working to improve 911 location accuracy. The letter by Rep. Mike Rogers (R.–Ala.) is the latest missile fired among public safety groups, which brokered a consensus agreement to improve location accuracy, and the Find Me 911 coalition that is lobbying for alternative technologies. Rogers wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence saying it would be unwise for the nation’s 911 network to rely on Russian technology. He also said the U.S. should continue to use “isolation and counter-leverage” against Russian to protest that country’s political and military actions. But Rogers’ letter sparked an article in the Washington Times newspaper that both mis-describes the consensus plan, but also completely misunderstands how the global positioning system of satellites and 911 networks work. Update: On Jan. 21st the four major cellular carriers have filed an amended agreement with the Federal Communications Commission that overcomes several of the criticisms of the original plan. details

A Phoenix (Ariz.) police dispatcher calmly talked a suspect in a violent murder to surrender after he dialed 911, but police are also investigating how a 911 call was handled one day earlier by a child, reporting the suspect was “mentally unstable.” At the end of a remarkable eight-minute 911 call with an unnamed calltaker, Andrew Ward walked out of convenience store and was taken into custody. Police found Ward’s 12 year-old brother back home, repeatedly stabbed to death. One day earlier, a young girl dialed 911 from Ward’s home to tell a calltaker that Ward had just arrived home. “We’re afraid he bought something that could possibly harm us,” the girl said. However, the calltaker told the youth that, “I can’t guarantee that (officers are) going to go in and search his room because he’s not doing anything.” The girl mentioned that her mother was also home, but the calltaker didn’t ask to speak to the mother, or ask other questions that might have provided more background on Ward’s behavior. The girl ended the call by saying, “OK. I guess I’ll have to wait till he does something.” Police officials declined to comment on the first 911 call, but did issue a statement. “Our operators ‘screen’ several million calls per year and follow our policies, directives,” it said, “and their experience to dispatch officers when they believe it is necessary. If we all had the benefit of hindsight, of course we would have liked to seen a different outcome in this case.” Listen to the child’s call here. Also listen to the suspect’s 911 call, during which the talented calltaker convinces a stranger to leave his cellular phone with the suspect so she can maintain contact with him as officers responded.

A smoky electrical fire in a section of Washington’s (DC) underground subway system last week has revealed problems with the fire department’s radio communications in the tunnels, forcing firefighters to relay information verbally. One person died and several were injured when a train stalled in a smoke-filled tunnel, and passengers were trapped for 40 minutes. In a preliminary post-incident report, District officials acknowledged that new digital trunked portable radios weren’t able to communicate with ground-level units, and reverted to direct-mode with a limited range. The fire department upgraded their radio system after encountering similar in-building communications problems during a Sept. 2013, multi-fatality shooting incident inside a U.S. Navy administration building. Read the The upgrade included encryption, which was turned on just last December. District’s report (pdf) that includes a timeline and email from one firefighter reporting the radio problems.

Officials of the San Diego Fire-Rescue agency say that a dispatcher’s instructions to passersby to remove a tourniquet they placed on an accident victim whose leg was severed, was a mistake. However, they say it’s questionable if the error led to the man’s death later in a hospital, since paramedics arrived within three minutes and reapplied the tourniquet. City EMS director Jim Dunford said he had not spoken to the unnamed dispatcher, and didn’t know why she gave the advice. He said EMD tourniquet advice for the last two years has been to leave it in place until a firefighter arrives and medically evaluates the patient. In this case, the victim was a pedestrian in the roadway and was hit by a motorcycle, severing his leg below the knee. A witness to the accident was ex-military, and used his belt as a tourniquet. However, when the man’s girlfriend dialed 911, the dispatcher told him, “We need to take that belt off. We don’t want to tourniquet it.” Dunford said it’s the first time he’s heard of such a mistake in 25 years, and that all dispatchers are being updated on the current tourniquet policy. Read more about the incident here.

A former Newport Beach (S. Calif.) police dispatcher has filed a lawsuit filed with complicated references to post traumatic stress disorder, union complaints, husband-wife connections, harassment and internal complaints—just for a start. The lawsuit filed in April 2013 also refers to pornography, running over a seagull with a police car and complaints over how the police chief was hired. Essentially, Christine Hougan claims she was fired in 2012 as retaliation for testifying in a co-worker’s harassment complaint, and because her police sergeant husband was leading a union action against the police chief. The city has said Hougan was fired for 11 serious rule violations, and her husband was fired in 2012 for viewing pornography on city computers, including after being discovered and formally warned. Read the fine details of the lawsuit here, and download the lawsuit complaint and city response here.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider new rules on 911 location accuracy during its first meeting of 2015 later this month, according to chair Tom Wheeler, and it’s likely the final rules will split between the the commission’s own proposal and a carrier agreement reached last year. In a blog post yesterday, Wheeler noted the commission’s on-going public safety priority has been to improve location accuracy for wireless 911 calls. In the early days of cellular 911, most wireless usage occurred outdoors, he said. “But times have changed, and so has technology. The vast majority of 911 calls now come from wireless phones, increasingly from indoors.” In particular, he noted the “significant advances” with “the potential to locate indoor callers by address, floor, and apartment or room number.” He mentioned the FCC’s proposed rules to improve 911 location accuracy, and also the roadmap created by the carriers and public safety organizations to improve accuracy. “The roadmap proposal is a big step forward,” Wheeler said, “but we also understand and appreciate the valid criticisms raised by some public safety stakeholders.” He revealed that he is circulating an order to fellow Commissioners, “that takes advantage of the good work done by the carriers, APCO, and NENA, while also providing confidence-building measures and backstop thresholds that set clear targets and deadlines for improving indoor location and hold parties accountable for results.” Wheeler didn’t explain how the two proposals might be combined into a single set of rules. The FCC’s public meeting is scheduled for January 29th.

When Solano County (N. Calif.) sheriff’s dispatchers received a 911 call from a young boy reporting his father had fallen while hiking, the call didn’t last long enough to determine an accurate location. But trainee Breanna Martinez then came up with an idea—she searched on the father’s name in Google, came up with a LinkedIn page, which led to a Facebook page and an important clue. The most recent entry said that Ryan Pritchard and his son were hiking a specific trail near Lake Berryessa, 30 miles from the cellular tower that received the 911 call. Martinez and dispatchers Sheri Speakman and Melissa Kunz requested a CHP helicopter into the area, and the air crew soon spotted the son. A medic was lowered into the area, where Pritchard had fallen 150 feet off a cliff and into a tree. He was airlifted to a hospital and will survive.

FCC Text-to-911 Database Goes Live

On the last day of 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has implemented a database and certification process for public safety answering points (PSAP) that are prepared to accept text-to-911 messages, and that will request the service from wireless carriers in the coming months. Although the FCC process is voluntary, it will help document the FCC regulatory process that requires carriers to provide text-to-911 by June 30, 2015 or within six months of a valid PSAP request. The FCC has pre-loaded the database with 186 PSAPs (list, pdf) that have already installed gear to accept text messages and worked with carriers to route 911 messages to the comm center. To submit their information for the database, PSAP officials must download a Word document, fill it out, and email it back to the FCC, where it will be hand-entered into the database. PSAP personnel must still contact and formally notify their wireless carriers that they are ready to accept text-to-911 messages. Read the readiness and certification form information and instructions, and find the form here.

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When a gunman invaded the Strozier Library at Florida State University Nov. 20th, it was campus police dispatcher Camila Peralta who fielded the first wave of calls from panicked students, and coworker Rebecca Riggle who also fielded calls and communicated with officers. The gunman shot and seriously wounded three people before quickly-arriving officers confronted and fatally shot him. In a video interview, Peralta modestly said she was not a hero, but pointed instead to the officers who responded towards the danger. A Leon County grand jury examined the incident, and praised the FSU police response, including the two dispatchers. However, the grand jury did note problems in handling 911 calls about the shooting that were received by the county’s public safety comm center.

Dispatchers at the Valley Emergency Communications Center (Utah) were answering 911 calls from a unregistered cellular phone every 10 seconds or, tallying over 4,000 in one week last month. The heavy call load tied up their 911 lines and diverted them from promptly handling other emergency calls. They enlisted the police to track down the offender, hoping to stop the calls and send the person to jail. But then, the situation quickly turned. Police traced the calls to a cell phone being used by a man with a mental disability, who was using the phone to play music on the deactivated handset. Somehow, as he listened, the man repeatedly dialed 911. Hearing that story, the dispatchers quickly raised money to buy the man an iPod and a $100 iTunes gift card so he could keep listening to his music, but without the chance to misdial 911. Read more here and here.

Previous medical studies have shown that Latino cardiac arrest victims are 30 percent less likely than whites to have bystander CPR performed on them, and now a new study confirms the actual barriers that prevent bystanders from learning CPR, dialing 911 when an incident occurs, and providing CPR to victims. According to the study in Denver (Colo.), a major factor is “language barrier,” with most study participants believing they were unlikely to have a competent interpreter answer their 911 call. Other factors found by a team from the University of Colorado School of Medicine include a distrust of law enforcement,  fear of financial costs and a low incidence of proper training. Bystander CPR has long been proven to increase survivability, in some cases up to three times the rate as with no CPR. The study found six key barriers: fear of becoming involved because of distrust of law enforcement, financial, immigration status, lack of recognition of cardiac arrest event, language, and violence. In addition, seven cultural barriers were identified: age, sex, immigration status, language, racism, strangers, and fear of touching someone. Participants in the study suggested that increasing the availability of tailored education in Spanish, increasing the number of bilingual 911 dispatchers, and policy-level changes, including CPR as a requirement for graduation and strengthening Good Samaritan laws, may serve as potential facilitators in increasing the provision of bystander CPR. details

A five-month investigation into a series of telephone calls to universities and individuals reporting hostages, kidnappings and planted bombs has resulted in the arrest of a Connecticut man on federal charges that could land him in prison time for decades. The complex investigation by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies involved tracing Skype telephone calls, collecting Tweets from several accounts and identify their authors, interviewing witnesses and connecting scores of “dots” to eventually point the finger at one suspect. The SWATing calls were part of an on-going series conducted by separate people and groups around the United States, and usually linked to on-line gaming, jealousy, revenge or just plain fun. In this case, the FBI arrested Matthew Tollis, 21, and jailed him on charges of conspiracy, aiding and abetting to convey false information, and making bomb threats. At least five other suspects have been identified, the U.S. Attorney says, and the investigation into their involvement is on-going. According to an arrest affidavit, Tollis was present and assisted in making a bomb threat to the University of Connecticut. In interview, the FBI said Tollis admitted his involvement, and claimed he participated because he was bullied and “doxed,” the latter the process of having all your personal information posted on-line for others to view and use in pranks and crimes. Tollis posted $100,000 bail secured by his parents home, surrendered his passport, and is wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor his location. He is also prohibited from accessing the Internet and making contact with his co-conspirators. Download (pdf) the full set of charging documents here., and the FBI press release. Separately, police in Ohio are investigating a series of SWATing incidents last September that sent heavily-armed police to a residence in response to a telephone call reporting an armed kidnapper who had a bomb.

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Orange County (Calif.) Fire Authority dispatcher David Paschke fielded a 911 call from the sister of a woman who was choking on a marshmallow. He quickly calmed the caller down, gave her Heimlich maneuver instructions, and the woman began breathing again. Read more about the incident here.

In one of the most serious disciplinary actions against dispatchers in recent history, the Leon County (Fla.) Joint Dispatch Agency (CDA) has fired three long-time employees who failed to broadcast premise alert information that warned a resident intended to “shoot any law enforcement” who came to his house. Officials said the premise alert had been entered just two weeks earlier, but all three dispatchers either failed to notice it or didn’t broadcast it. Last November that resident set fire to his own home and ran to a neighbor’s house to call for help. When Dep. Chris Smith arrived at the house, the resident opened fire and killed him. He also shot at Dep. Colin Wulfekuhl, but he was saved when a bullet hit his protective vest. The suspect was then shot and killed by a third deputy after a 12-minute exchange of gunfire. CDA director Tim Lee said, “The Leon County Sheriff’s Office is gravely concerned and deeply troubled about the CDA staff not providing available, critical officer safety information” to the first responders, including the fire department. The fired dispatchers are Gwen Forehand, 25 years of service, Doyai Hester, 20 years, and Darrel Newman, 10 years. A dispatcher-in-training was suspended for two weeks without pay over the incident. Lee said all CDA dispatchers will receive training to stress the importance of premise alerts and how to access them. The comm center took over dispatching for several agencies earlier this year, and has been criticized by emergency agencies for mistakes and technology glitches. Read more about the firings here. Update: Within days, the three dispatchers appeared very briefly at a press conference arranged by their attorney. They said they performed as trained, while the attorney raised a question whether the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software had properly dispatched the premise alert. Watch the video after the break. Update: in mid-January 2015 the CDA announced several procedural changes to insure first responders will receive future premise hazard alerts. In mid-January 2015 the city released the names of the dispatchers: calltaker Constance Hollinger and radio dispatcher Beth Mandl.  [click to continue…]