≡ Menu

A Maine newspaper’s recent request for 911 logging tapes related to a homicide has prompted the state legislature to consider amending the law to exempt such calls from the state’s open records law. A legislative committee heard testimony last week that releasing 911 calls from cases under active investigation by law enforcement could jeopardize prosecutions. But state media organizations say that access to 911 call recordings is important to maintain proper government oversight. Maine is one of 10 states that prohibit release of 911 call recordings or limit their release. However, the current law doesn’t specifically provide protection for call recordings when police are still investigating a crime. Under L.D. 495, the state’s records confidentiality law would add public safety comm centers to the list of agency records to be protected, and specifically protect comm center records “when in the custody of a criminal justice agency.” In the existing “Disclosure Required” section of the state records law, an exemption would be added for, “information or records that related to a pending law enforcement investigation or pending criminal prosecution.” The proposed law would also add penalties for disclosing confidential information, including 911 call audio or transcripts. Download (pdf) the proposed bill here, and read more about the debate here.

A Massachusetts police organization is making a public appeal for reconsideration of eviction orders for T-Band radio users, pointing out how well a regional radio network operated during last month’s Boston Marathon bombings. The Greater Boston Police Council (GBPC) said that 166 agencies within 2,200 square-miles are dependent upon the Boston Area Police Emergency Radio Network (BAPERN), and daily use the system to improve public safety. Congress passed legislation in February 2012 that requires users of the 470-512 MHz band to vacate the frequencies by 2023, part of a larger plan to re-allocate spectrum to public safety agencies. There are 11 regions of the country that are allowed to use the band, mostly because of extreme frequency congestion in those regions. In a press release and statement, the GBPC says BAYPERN has 22 sites providing inter-agency communications for over 11,000 sworn personnel. The network is organized into two wide-area channels, six district channels and four tactical channels. The GBPC said that in the aftermath of the marathon bombings, “The greater Boston area witnessed none of the interoperability challenges that faced first responders on 9/11, due to the long‐standing use and local familiarity with BAPERN.” The group concluded, “Without the BAPERN system in place, the responding local, regional, state, and federal law enforcement personnel would not have had a method for communicating during this large‐scale incident.” The GBPC hopes that Congress and the FCC, “will reflect on the great communications successes achieved with BAPERN over the past 40 years,” when re-considering the T-Band vacate order. Download the GBPC materials about how the radio network performed during the Boston Marathon bombings.

Cleveland police dispatcher Jennifer Daunch was working 10 years ago when Amanda Berry disappeared from a city street, and coincidentally was working the radio dispatch position on May 6th when Berry and two other victims were rescued from their decade-long ordeal. She recalled the emotions and anticipation of the rescue for CBS News reporter Dean Reynolds.

Faced with the quickly-approaching world of Internet-based communications, today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed several real-world technology trials to help guide their regulatory work, including future 911 technology. The tests will include Next Generation 911 (NG911) networks, but also a study of how network resiliency and public safety are affected by  wireless and IP- based services. The trials will be conducted by the FCC’s Technology Transitions Policy Task Force, are are intended to give the commissioners “good data,” the agency said in a statement. The project will include network migrations from copper wire to fiber optic cables and IP technology, and to wireless communications. “Today’s Notice reflects the need to be smart about how we structure trials for them to be useful,” the FCC said. “We need to know what we want to test and how we will evaluate the results.” The 911 trials will focus on NG911, and the FCC is seeking, “on a trial that will assist the Commission, state, local and Tribal governments, and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in a few geographic areas to answer important technical and policy questions to accelerate the transition.” NENA applauded the action, saying it will “ultimately spell the end for traditional analog telephones while preserving critical 9-1-1 service for wireline subscribers.” Download (pdf) the Public Notice about the project. [click to continue…]

In a rare two minutes of radio turn-about, a retiring Denver (Colo.) police dispatcher was honored with broadcast tributes from co-workers and officers in the field. John Boller spent nearly 21 years in the communications center and became known as “The Voice of Denver” for his voice and skills. On May 1st Boller retired, and a co-worker broadcast the news over the police radio channel. “He has been the voice of calm for those he has worked with and dispatched over his tenure with Denver 911,” the dispatcher told everyone who was listening. Officers were then invited to switch to another talkgroup to give their best wishes to Boller. Listen to Boller’s radio tribute here.

A simple 911 call to a Cleveland (Ohio) police dispatcher has led to the safe return of three women who were kidnapped and held up to 11 years, allegedly by three brothers who lived on the city’s west side. One of the women, Amanda Berry, now 27 years-old, managed to get the attention of a neighbor through a partially-open door and call for help. Another neighbor managed to break a door panel, allowing Berry to escape to a nearby store, where she dialed 911. In one dramatic statement, Berry summed up the ordeal, saying “I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years, and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.” After the three-minute calls, police responded, listened to Berry’s story, and then proceeded to the nearby house to rescue Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. All three were taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment. Police arrested one suspect in the neighbor, and later two more at other locations. Police said the three are in their 50s. All three women disappeared in their teens during the period from 2002 to 2004, and police had no clues on whether they had been kidnapped or voluntarily left. Listen to the 911 call here, and the radio dispatch hereUpdate: Shortly after the 911 logging tape was released, there was considerable public criticism of the calltaker’s handling of the call. Critics said the dispatcher should have kept Berry on the phone, and should have been more personal and empathetic with her. Martin Flask, director of the city’s Department of Public Safety, said the agency would be reviewing how the dispatcher handled the call. “While the call-taker complied with policies and procedures which enabled a very fast response by police,” Flask said in a statement, “we have noted some concerns which will be the focus of our review, including the call-taker’s failure to remain on the line with Ms. Berry until police arrived on the scene.” He later posted a departmental blog entry about the criticism. May 21st Update: Cleveland PD confirmed they are examining the logging tape of Berry’s 911 call to determine if the calltaker used a profanity at the very end of the call. [click to continue…]

An examination of south Florida public safety communications center records by a local television station found 172 incidents of dispatcher misconduct from 2006 to 2012, but only one employee termination. Instead, nearly half the incidents were handled with a disposition of “counseling.” The incidents ranged from sleeping on the job to downloading and repeatedly visiting dating Web sites. A Boca Raton dispatcher fell asleep during a 911 call, the discipline records showed. Reporters for WPTV obtained the records from city and county comm centers and compiled a database of the incidents and resulting discipline. The list does not include dispatcher names, but the station’s report said that several dispatchers had more than offense on their record. The TV report also includes tapes of interviews with three of the accused dispatchers, during which they explain their actions. Read more about the incidents here.

A series of false and malicious 911 calls targeting west coast celebrities for the past six months has now moved to the eastern part of the country. Most troubling, one of the false reports was made via a text message to a police department, perhaps the country’s first SWATing text message. Both of the two latest incidents occurred last Saturday night. In Howell (Mich.) an unknown person dialed 911 and claimed to be U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers. The impersonator said he was at home, had shot his wife and that he was now suicidal. Police responded in force, and quickly learned the call was false. Rogers happened to be in Washington (DC) at the time. That same night, Montgomery County (Virg.) police said someone sent them a text message reporting a shooting at the home of CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer. The text included Blitzer’s name and home address. Officers responded and discovered that Blitzer was not at home, and that the call was false. Police said the text message was sent through the department’s anonymous Text-A-Tip program, a third-party service that uses Canadian servers to remove the sender’s identifying information, and make it legally impossible to trace (pdf) messages.

A District of Columbia budget proposal to lengthen public safety dispatcher shifts from 10 to 12 hours has drawn sharp criticism from both sides of the radio—police officers who point to existing problems with the center, and dispatchers who say they’ll simply be more burned out than ever from understaffing. The Office of Unified Communications provides dispatching services to the District’s police, fire and EMS agencies, and was created in 2008 to consolidate the District’s various comm centers and improve operations. But even after the merger and move to a new center, criticism has continued. During a District Council committee meeting earlier this month, dispatchers testified that the center has lost 20 job positions over the last two years, and no hiring is anticipated. The longer 12-hour shifts would simply increase dispatcher stress, leading to more mistakes, sick leave and resignations, the dispatchers said. The District’s police officers’ union also weighed in on the proposal, noting several recent high-profile errors by the center’s dispatchers. Last November, an officer was stabbed and radioed for help, but the radio dispatcher lost track of the officer, and assistance was delayed. Read more about the situation here.

Faced with an ever-increasing number of public safety smartphone applications being developed by independent companies, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) has now created a Web site to help focus app programming on real-world and practical features. There are currently scores of apps for the iPhone and other handsets, but none fully integrate with 911 centers, and the features of many are impractical or ignore 911 centers. Earlier this year APCO warned of applications being developed by companies and groups with no expertise or experience in the field of public safety communications. The new Web site hopes to assist developers by connecting them with public safety professionals, and learning more about which features are most useful to comm centers and the public. The site launched yesterday with 60 representative apps selected by APCO’s staff, and allows visitors to to rate and comment on them. The site does not allow downloads of the apps directly, but does provide a link to the appropriate app store. APCO notes it will not be endorsing or vetting the apps, but will instead let the the site’s visitors, “provide critical insights to identify the best apps and facilitate practitioner-driven innovation.” The current list of app categories includes reference, maps, video, government data and personal safety. Last month APCO began a program to create official standards for developing apps that can integrate directly with public safety answering points (PSAP). The process includes creating draft standards, accepting public comments and making revisions, which usually takes many months.

A government report that is critical of how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) collects and analyzes data on local 911 funding has come under fire itself, from the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). The crux of the unusual double critique is that while the FCC collects information on how state 911 surcharges are collected, the information is inconsistent and incomplete, and insufficiently analyzed. The report released today by the General Accountability Office (GAO) acknowledge that 97 percent of public safety answering points (PSAP) in the U.S. have Phase II E911 service. That’s an improvement since 2006, the GAO noted, when just 57 percent of PSAPs had Phase II features. But the GAO said the FCC’s methods for collecting data “limit its usefulness.” Notably, states are not required to participate in the funding survey, and not all report their surcharges in dollar amounts (they only report the percentage figure of the surcharge). Most of the state responses are textual, making analysis and comparison difficult or impossible, the GAO said. As for NENA, the group said the GAO report was “a missed opportunity” to take a detailed look at the state data, and determine where 911 surcharge funds are actually being spent. In a written statement, NENA CEO Brian Fontes said the group was still pleased that the information will be shared with lawmakers. “We call on the Congress to scrutinize the report and continue to seek more illuminating data,” Fontes said. Download (pdf) the 41-page report here. [click to continue…]

Facing a pair of common misconceptions about public safety communications, a national group has posted a layman’s explanation of why first responders can’t rely on cellular telephones for primary communications, and why the future broadband network won’t work for mission-critical voice. The posting by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) comes as scores of public safety agencies are upgrading their radio networks, and the federal government is leading an effort to create a nationwide wireless broadband data network. Both projects have generated questions by politicians and the general public about alternate ways of providing wireless voice communications for law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies. Specifically, some outside public safety believe that cellular networks could be used instead of push-to-talk radios, saving the expense of buying and operating individual agency radio systems. Some also believe that the wireless broadband network being created by FirstNet might support voice communications. In its posting, NPSTC’s  bullet point focus on the need for priority access, group communications, high reliability and security and the lack of current LTE technology to provide those features on a wireless network. The group warned public officials at all levels, “to not abandon or stop funding their public safety LMR systems,” believing that the broadband network will take over for their radio system.” Download (pdf) the full NPSTC explanation here.

With a lawsuit hanging over the department, this week Denver Police released the logging tape of a 911 call from a road rage victim, and as the caller spoke to a dispatcher, the second motorist returned, opened fire with a handgun and killed one man. The incident occurred in April 2012 near the city’s border with Lakewood. After the road rage incident, the victims drove to a relative’s apartment about three blocks into Lakewood, and then dialed 911. Calltaker Juan Jesus Rodriguez told the men they had to return to Denver in order to meet with an officer to file a report—officers would not leave the city to handle incidents. During the call the men drove back to the scene of the original incident in Denver. Almost immediately, the other party in the road rage drove by and fired at the victims. The entire sequence was captured by the 15-minute 911 call that was just released. A city audit issued in February found a culture of poor call handling by dispatchers, including inaccurate incident locations, failure to dispatch EMS units appropriately, and other mistakes. Overall, the audit found that dispatchers received a failing grade on 20 percent of the calls they handled. Rodriguez was fired (pdf) for his role in the incident, but the family of Jimma Paul Reat has filed a lawsuit over his death. Listen to the 911 call here (transcript, pdf).

When a citizen dialed 911 to report seeing a man with a gun, NORCOM (Bellevue, Wash.) dispatcher Kelly Stiefel had been in training for three months, and released to the floor for  just 10 days. A trainer was plugged into the console with her, but Stiefel recalls the incident had her heart racing. Read her interview with a KING-TV reporter and view the video after the break. [click to continue…]

Three Los Angeles-area celebrities were the latest victims of malicious calls to police, falsely reporting shootings at their homes and generating a heavy police response. Yesterday evening, police say callers reported incidents at the homes of singers Rihanna and Selena Gomez and actor Justin Timberlake. All the callers described shootings, two inside homes and the third on the street. Rihanna was not at home when police arrived to investigate armed men inside and a shooting victim. The call involving Gomez reported a shooting on the street, and the caller for Timberlake said four men were inside the residence and shots had been fired. Rapper Diddy was victimized Thursday in nearby Toluca Lake, police said. Police did not say if the same persons might be involved in these latest incidents. SWATing callers typically use non-emergency or TTY telephone lines to report their false incidents, and an IP-based telephone line to conceal the origin of their calls. Such incidents were rare in the U.S. until about four months ago, when a series of celebrity-based calls began. Several previous callers were identified by the FBI and successfully prosecuted. No one has been arrested in the most recent series of calls.