The Los Angeles (Calif.) fire department communications center is burning through $3.2 million in overtime a year, using firefighters as dispatchers who work 24-hour shifts to provide staffing. But facing a serious budget deficit, Los Angeles city officials have reduced funding for the comm center, and fire officials are proposing to switch to eight-hour shifts to stay within that budget, a change that critics say will reduce staffing up to 40 percent on some shifts. The situation raises all the classic comm center issues of civilianization, staffing levels, shift length and money, which are rarely solved simultaneously. A long story in the Los Angeles Times newspaper says the dispatchers now make an average base salary of $95,700 a year, with automatic overtime on their 56-hour weekly schedule. The fire department has resisted periodic calls for civilianization over the years, the newspaper notes. Fire officials have said civilians would not have the needed experience or training. A primary question is how to staff for periodic spikes in 911 calls generated by large incidents. Now, dispatchers working 24-hour shifts who are off the floor can be summoned. Under the eight-hour shift plan, firefighters from nearby stations would be called to the comm center to assist in answering 911 calls. Download (pdf) a recently-released LAFD’s “next generation” staffing proposal, and read more about the budget situation here.
Feeling the pressure from cellular subscribers and Congress, the nation’s cellular carriers have voluntarily agreed to provide a “best-efforts” text-to-911 service to any comm center that requests it starting no later than May 2014. The new service is intended to provide emergency reporting via SMS messages until national NG911 service can be provided, perhaps in the next 10 years. In an announcement late Thursday, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T joined the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) to announce the commitment. The service will benefit those who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired, the groups said, without mentioning other potential users of the service. Significantly, the carriers said they will implement the service “independent of their ability to recover these associated costs from state or local governments.” Much of the spotlight for implementing text-to-911 has focused on creating parity for smartphone users who are already used to texting, not on the deaf or speech-impaired community. Proponents have also noted the service could be used by crime victims who cannot speak because of their close proximity to suspects. In the annoucement, the carriers said that before deployment, they will implement a “bounce-back” message to warn customers text-to-911 service is unavailable in their area. They are not required to implement the service for customers roaming outside their home service area. The service will only be provided to comm centers that are technically ready to accept text messages, have been authorized by local or state 911 governing groups, and that make a formal request of the carriers. In a separate announcement, Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski said the the commission will take steps next week to insure text-to-911 is rolled out quickly. “This is good progress,” he said, “but our work is not done.” Download (pdf) the joint carrier announcement and Genachowski’s remarks here. [click to continue…]
When Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast last month, it caused billions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses, but also damaged and knocked out dozens of communications systems for reporting emergencies and managing public safety personnel. Now, legislators and the media are criticizing the reliability of cellular, 911 and public safety radio systems, and asking how the systems can be made more robust. A long article in the Washington Post newspaper notes there have been 11 outages of 911 systems since July 2010 in the Virginia and Maryland region, all operated by Verizon. The company handles 911 routing for 1,800 public safety answering points (PSAP) in 12 states, and says that any downtime is a very small percentage of the system’s total operating hours. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has opened an inquiry into how public communications systems operated during Hurricane Sandy, including 911 networks. The newspaper interviewed experts and reviewed Verizon records, and learned that many outages involved multiple failures of equipment or systems. A story on the ProPublica Web site examines how cellular carriers have resisted call for the FCC to regulate how calls—both 911 and routine—should be handled during emergencies. So far, the FCC has allowed the carriers latitude to devise they own policies. However, the story says, critics say Americans’ dependence on cellular phones now requires that the FCC step in a insure wireless calls can be made even during a major emergency.
In the rural areas of northern California, sheriff’s deputies can be hundreds of miles and hours of driving away from crime victims. So in March 2011 when the Trinity County sheriff’s comm center received a 911 call from a woman whispering, “Help,” a lawsuit claims a deputy telephoned neighbors to investigate while he was enroute. Those neighbors were met by the crazed man who had just killed the two residents of the house, and were themselves slashed by the knife-wielding man. The husband and wife survived, and have will file a lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, saying the deputy never explained the potential danger to them, and should never have asked them to go to the victims’ house. Sheriff’s officials say the deputy who called Jim and Norma Gund never asked them to respond, but only if they could see anything from their house. Since the deputy called the couple from a cellular phone, there is no logging tape of the call. After attacking the Gunds, the murder suspect fled, but was spotted by sheriff’s deputies and pursued. His car crashed into a tree and the suspect was killed. The incident raises questions of rural area response times, inter-agency coordination, radio communications and policies for recording communications. Download (pdf) the Gunds’ claim against the county before the lawsuit filing, and read more details here. [click to continue…]
A former Glendale (Colo.) police dispatcher has filed a lawsuit against the agency alleging that after the birth of her daughter, she was not allowed to take breaks to use a breast pump, was ridiculed by other employees and eventually had her work hours eliminated, essentially ending her employment. The lawsuit was filed Monday by Katie Falk, and relates to her pregnancy in mid-2010. Falk was a two-year veteran at GPD, and anticipated returning to work soon after her baby was born. She consulted with her supervisors about using a breast pump when she returned to work, and was allegedly told her she would have to use the pump while she worked at the console. When she did return to work, she was assigned the night shift, which did not have sufficient staffing to allow breaks away from the console. Despite her continued requests for needed breaks, her direct supervisors ignored her and her pleas to higher-level management were not acted upon. The lawsuit states that eventually the city’s human resources director told her she would not be given any more work shifts until she had weaned her daughter. By late Nov. 2010 she had been “constructively discharged,” the lawsuit claims. Falk is asking for back pay, future pay and the other benefits she would have received, compensatory damages and legal fees. The city has not yet responded to the lawsuit. Download (pdf) the full lawsuit complaint for more details.
The Dallas (Tex.) police dispatcher who fielded a call from a woman who was later murdered by her husband has resigned, even as the city continues to face a lawsuit from the victim’s family. Tonyita Hopkins took the 911 call in last August from Deanna Cook, and a later police investigation determined that Hopkins failed to enter certain information into the police department’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system which would have prompted a quicker and more thorough response. Instead, it took 10 minutes for a dispatcher to send an officer to Cook’s apartment, and it took the officer 50 minutes to arrive. The officer checked the outside of the building, but never attempted to go inside. Cook’s body was discovered two days later by her family, and her husband was later arrested for murder. In the lawsuit filed in federal court, the family says the police department failed to protect Cook, that Hopkins and dispatcher Johnnye Wakefeld mishandled 911 calls, and that dispatcher Yamnah Shani Mitchell failed to promptly dispatch the incident to officers. Hopkins was later suspended without pay for 10 days, and then was reassigned to the police department’s property room. Last Tuesday she resigned from the police department. Her family released a statement: “For legal reasons, we have been advised not to speak publicly but, when the time is right, we would love to share our side of the story.” The police department’s comm center has been the subject of complaints lately, both from citizens and former dispatchers. Download (pdf) the family’s complaint, the city’s response and selected other documents in the case. Update: A second incident came to light in late Nov., where a drug overdose patient died because of a miscommunication over two similar incidents at the same apartment complex.
The Washington state Supreme Court has issued a ruling that agrees with two lower courts which said the Skagit Emergency Communications Center is not immune from civil liability for its handling of a 911 call in 2005 reporting a man with a gun. Bill Munich was shot and killed by a neighbor after he had dialed 911 to report a dispute, and that the neighbor was chasing him with a rifle. The neighbor eventually got into a vehicle, chased Munich down a rural road and fatally shot him. The handling dispatcher classified the incident as Priority 2, and a sheriff’s deputy arrived 14 minutes after the first 911 call. When Munich’s family sued Skagit County, county officials claimed immunity from lawsuit under the state’s “special duty” law. However, the original trial court, a state appellate court and now the Supreme Court ruled that because the dispatcher told Munich that help was on the way, and gave him specific safety advice, that the county can be sued. The case now goes to trial, where the issue of the county liability will ultimately be decided. Download (pdf) the Supreme Court’s opinion, and read more about the decision here.
There has been a “very small” number of 911 center failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, according to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but at least 25 percent of the affected region’s cellular antenna sites are down, limiting communications. During a conference call yesterday, Julius Genachowski told reporters that some comm centers have re-routed 911 calls to alternate centers, and the ANI/ALI information may not be displayed for every 911 call at some centers. He did not give specific figures for any of the hurricane-related outages. “The storm is not over,” Genachowski said. “Our assumption is that communications outages could get worse before they get better—particularly for mobile.” He said based on mandatory reports from communications carriers, about 25 percent of residents in the region had no cable TV, Internet or telephone service. Genachowski said in some areas, there is no cellular service at all, and residents have no electric power. He urged residents to dial 911 only for life-threatening emergencies, and to use social media for routine communications with friends and family, not wired or wireless telephone networks. Genachowski warned that rain and continued flooding in the next few days could slow the restoration of communications, and that communications might worsen as generators run out of fuel and batteries go dead at communications sites.
Faced with the closure of two hospitals and an ever-increasing workload at other emergency rooms, the city and county of Honolulu (Hi.) has kicked off a program to sharply focus on the top 50 chronic 911 callers reporting medical complaints. Instead of sending a full fire and EMS response to chronic callers, the top 50 callers will be visited once a week by the Community Paramedic Project, who will treat minor problems, transport for major problems, but more importantly refer them to other agencies to solve their core issues. According to research of 911 records, the top 50 callers generated 1,200 telephone calls in the first nine months of 2012, or almost 25 each on average. Most have chronic medical issues, but over a third have mental illness and 22% have substance abuse issues. Officials hope to reduce the 911 calls and responses by 50 percent when the program is fully operational. The program will cost about $150,000 a year, far less than the estimated $2.6 million spent on emergency medical responses to the top 50 callers. [click to continue…]
For Bucks County (Penn.) 911 dispatcher Jessica Finnell, hanging up the telephone at the end of a 911 call doesn’t mean the incident is over. When a fellow dispatcher took a citizen’s report of finding a severely beaten dog, Finnell was shocked to hear that the dog’s eyes were popped from their sockets by the attack, and that the dog had skull fractures. Later, when she learned the dog’s owner was unknown, she called the township animal control officer and offered her help to care for the dog. A veterinary clinic patched up the dog, and Finnell took her home until the owner was later located. She also started a fund to cover future expenses that “Dusk” will need. Police are investigating the incident, which they believe was a deliberate attack. Read more about the incident here, and watch a video after the break. [click to continue…]
After hearing complaints from the nation’s public safety communications centers that automatically-dialed 911 calls are tying up 911 lines, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued an order banning the practice, and has established fines up to $100,000 per call for violators. In an action yesterday, the FCC extended the nation’s existing consumer Do-Not-Call registry to the 911 emergency number, and began the process of establishing operational details for the new service. The consumer Do-Not-Call list was established in 2003, and was focused on limiting unwanted telemarketing by commercial companies. The regulation allows anyone to register one or more telephone numbers. In turn, operators of automatic dialers are required by law to access this registry of phone numbers, and are prohibited from calling any of the numbers. About 209 million telephone numbers are now registered with the service, or about half the total wired and wireless telephone accounts. The 911 registry will operate similarly, with public safety answering points (PSAP) given wide latitude to determine which of their numbers to register. The FCC said even non-emergency or administrative numbers would be appropriate for the registry, since they may be used for inter-agency contact and coordination during an incident. PSAPs will be required to review their registered numbers annually to confirm the accuracy of the list. On the other side, companies using autodialers must access the list, which will display only the registered numbers, and not any PSAP information. The companies are prohibited from disclosing the list of numbers, and must provide the FCC with their own list of out-bound calling numbers to assist in tracking down Do-Not-Call violators. As for the the fines, the FCC set them high: up to $1 million for disclosing the PSAP numbers, and up to $100,000 for each call dialed to a registered number. Download (pdf) the FCC’s full Order for more details on the new program. [click to continue…]
Faced with its inability to legally require multi-line telephone system (MLTS) operators to provide E911 ANI/ALI service, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has come up with other actions—a brochure, a new logo and Web links, all demonstrating that achieving full E911 service to all telephone callers is far from a reality. The PUC issued a proposed order last week detailing its actions that also include directing AT&T to file new tariffs for future MLTS E911, and asking the state’s Communications Division to take a “leadership role” in raising awareness of MLTS E911 shortcomings. Right now, various sources estimate that at least 16 million Californians are using telephones linked to MLTS systems on any given day. Of those systems, only about 30 percent transmit an accurate ANI/ALI to public safety comm centers, such as a building ID, floor or suite number or other specific location. That means that dispatchers don’t have a way of accurately locating callers if they are unable to speak or otherwise can’t provide a location. In the PUC’s 78-page order, they document the history of MLTS E911 in the state and their own actions, and acknowledge the important of accurate ANI/ALI information. But with no legal authority to act, the PUC can only emphasize, inform and suggest changes to the major stakeholders. Download (pdf) the full order for all the details.
Facing an ever-increasing number of public safety-related smartphone applications, two public safety groups have issued an explanation of 911 to help developers better understand the technical and operational limitations of the emergency number. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and National Emergency Number Association (NENA) posted the six-page document, saying that app developers, “may not fully consider the impacts on 9-1-1 and public safety during the development process.” Apple supercharged the availability of smartphone apps when they debuted a formal on-line store in June 2008 that allows free and paid downloads. Since then, scores of apps have appeared that purport to allow users to send emergency alerts, connect to 911 or take some other action when an emergency arises. In many cases, using such an app could potentially delay an emergency response, compared to dialing 911 directly and immediately. ”An app that notifies the caller’s family or friends of an emergency situation should not be viewed as a solution for contacting 9-1-1.” Instead, the groups say, “Callers that need emergency services need to contact 9-1-1 directly or there is risk that emergency services may be significantly delayed.” The APCO-NENA document explains the ANI-ALI process, and notes that 911 networks cannot receive text, photos, videos or other advanced content. The document also explains NG911 and advises app developers to check local regulations and laws that might pertain to dialing 911.
The state of Nevada has agreed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit by paying $125,000 to a former state forestry dispatcher who was fired after telling her supervisors that she was pregnant. Tawnya Meyer, 32, was fired in March 2007, and is now working in Oregon. Her case was taken up by the U.S. Department of Justice as a civil rights violation, and last May the agency filed a federal lawsuit against the Nevada Division of Forestry. Yesterday, the state’s Board of Examiners agreed to settle the lawsuit, after being told by the state attorney general’s office that Meyer could receive up to $374,000 if the case went to trial and the jury found for the plaintiff. According to the lawsuit, Meyer notified her supervisor that she was pregnant, and would need to be off from work during the busy summer fire season. Shortly after, her doctor ordered her to take leave. During that leave, the DOJ alleged that her supervisor and two fire managers met and decided to fire Meyer because of her pregnancy, and to replace her with a non-pregnant employee. The DOJ noted that such an action is clearly illegal under federal civil rights laws. The lawsuit also alleged that the supervisors and another dispatcher made inappropriate remarks to Meyer about her pregnancy in the period before she was fired. Read the DOJ’s May announcement of the lawsuit filing, information about unlawful discrimination involving pregnancy in the workplace here, a news account of the settlement, and download (pdf) the federal lawsuit court documents here.
A Parker County (Tex.) sheriff’s dispatcher answered a ringing 911 line at 12:30 a.m. yesterday, and with remarkable patience and compassion listened to and talked with a 15 year-old boy who confessed to fatally shooting his mother and sister. The unnamed female dispatcher spoke to Jake Evans, 17, for 25 minutes as deputies drove to his home in a rural gated community west of Dallas, reassuring him of help, asking him questions, and ultimately leading him to safely surrender. “We’re going to help you, we’re not going to hurt you,” the dispatcher told Evans at one point. After Evans said he worried about having nightmares, the dispatcher told him, ‘I’m sure your family will get you the support you need.” Police say Evans used a .22-cal. revolver to shoot his relatives several times. A motive for the shootings isn’t clear, even after listening to the 911 call. Throughout the call, the dispatcher showed no signs of judgement or disgust through her voice, but instead created a personal connection and built trust with Evans to safely end the incident. As deputies moved into position outside Evans’ home, the dispatcher instructed him on how to surrender. “Just walk very slowly, and walk outside, and keep your hands visible, alright, sweetie? I’ll talk to you later.” Listen to the entire 911 call here.