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The Los Angeles County (Calif.) civil grand jury is the latest group to criticize the city’s fire dispatching operations, and has issued a report recommending comm center civilianization, the use of emergency medical dispatching (EMD) and improved technology, all intended to improve medical incident response times. The 23-member grand jury also said the LA City fire department should reinstate funding that was cut in 2008 so more engine companies and ambulances could provide faster response times. The fire department has been under fire for the past year after it was revealed that calculations had been changed to make response times appear shorter than they actually were. Those figures were then used to justify cost-cutting that included reducing staffing by about 20 percent, county officials said. In its report, the grand jury said it visited four area comm centers and interviewed city fire officials. They gathered data from the Verdugo, LA County, LA City and Long Beach comm centers and compared response times and incident handling. The grand jury concluded that the caller’s language and cellular call locations add a degree of complexity to handling 911 calls. Additionally, geography is a factor in response times, especially for isolated locations and those in hilly communities. “Of the above factors, the most crucial and the most obvious impediment to adequate response times is the budget issue,” the grand jury said. They were “impressed” by the use of civilians to handle 911 calls, and recommended that LA City should replaced firefighters in the comm center with civilians. They recommended upgrading the 30 year-old computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software. Download (pdf) the full grand jury report.

The Seminole County (Fla.) sheriff’s dispatcher who fielded a telephone call from George Zimmerman was a six-year veteran of the agency, but in testimony during Zimmerman’s murder trial last week, he said he received just one month of side-by-side training before working on his own. Sean Noffke spent nearly 50 minutes on the stand explaining his job, and answering questions from the prosecutor and Zimmerman’s defense attorney. He said there are about 30 dispatchers on-duty during a typical shift, and that both 911 and 7-digit calls telephone calls are answered by the same team. He explained the comm center’s method of prioritizing incidents based on information provided by callers. Noffke then explained that Zimmerman’s call came in on a 7-digit, non-emergency line, and that he heard him describe a suspicious person. At one point Zimmerman said the person was running, and that he was following the person. “We don’t need you to do that,” Noffke told Zimmerman. Under questioning by the defense attorney, Noffke explained, “You don’t want to give direct orders to a person,” adding that the policy was meant to limit county liability. Both attorneys asked Noffke several times to characterize Zimmerman’s words, and if he had any concern about Zimmerman’s use of profanity. Watch a video of Noffke’s entire testimony after the break. [click to continue…]

An angry group of New York City city council members raised questions about improvements of the city’s public safety communications system, noting that it was seven years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget. Members of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services also heard information about how a recent fatal vehicle accident was handled, in the wake of criticism that an emergency response was delayed. Much of the committee’s criticism focused on how response times are calculated. Traditionally, the city clocked that figure from when the calltaker was finished with the call to when emergency units arrived. Committee members are proposing a city law to start the clock when a 911 call is first answered, in order to provide more accurate performance statistics. Outside, dispatchers and firefighter held a press conference to explain how mayor Bloomberg’s administration had “lied” about response times. Inside the hearing, Dep. mayor Cas Holloway warned council members to ignore claims being made in the press, which he said were being made for political purposes. Holloway told the council that the city’s previous computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system was installed in 1963, and built around an airline reservation system. He outlined how telephone, radio and computer systems are being updated and expanded. Watch the entire council subcommittee hearing video here, which includes a 90-minute comprehensive explanation of the city’s emergency communications system. Read about the committee hearing itself here., and download (pdf) the proposed laws on response time reporting. [click to continue…]

Testimony during the upcoming Florida murder trial of George Zimmerman will not include four experts who examined audio from a 911 call and reached different conclusions about who was talking on the tape. Judge Debra Nelson ruled today that the science behind the experts’ analysis was not “widely accepted,” and so jurors should not hear their testimony. However, Nelson ruled the prosecution or defense can still play the 911 call tape during the trial to establish other facts. In earlier court hearings, experts for the defense claimed that yelling on the 911 tape was from Zimmerman, while the prosecution experts said the sounds were made by Trayvon Martin, who died from a gunshot fired by Zimmerman. Both sides had expected to use the expert testimony to help establish who was the aggressor during a confrontation between the two men in Feb. 2012. Read more about the judge’s ruling here, and download (pdf) the judge’s ruling here.

A proposal by a New York City city council member to expand the definition of racial profiling has met with strong opposition by the city’s police unions, who say the bill would prevent officers from broadcasting even the most basic facts about a suspect, such as race, gender or age. A half-page ad in the New York Post paid for by the Captains Endowment Association showed a blindfolded officer standing on a street corner. “How effective is a police officer with a blindfold on?” the ad asked. The bill was proposed by Jumaane Williams (Brooklyn), and it would expand existing language about racial profiling, and the ability of citizens to pursue complaints with the police department. But according to the unions, the bill would limit descriptions of people to only their clothing. Any mention of other characteristics would put the officer in jeopardy of a complaint, the unions claimed. Williams said the unions were misrepresenting his proposal, and that it only adds additional groups to those being provided protection. Read more about the opposition here, and read the full text of the proposed bill here.

A corporate battle is underway for new revenues related to wireless 911 location technology, disguised as a grassroots movement of associations and individuals, and using every social media tool in the Internet’s inventory to promote itself. The Find Me 911 project is billed as an effort of “individuals and organizations” to improve the accuracy of locating indoor cellular 911 calls. However, the project was initially funded by TruePosition Inc., a technology company that sells a wireless location solution, and is being promoted by Prism Public Affairs, a Washington (DC) firm that specializes in “coalition development” for corporate clients trying to influence Congress. The group has just sent a letter (pdf) to members of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee, asking them to raise the question of indoor 911 location accuracy during hearings for Tom Wheeler, nominated for chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The group notes that an estimated 70 percent of 911 calls are now made from cellular phones, and, “at least 50 percent of all wireless calls originate indoors, according to industry estimates.” There are existing technologies to improve cellular locating, the group says, and the FCC should establish standards for indoor accuracy. [click to continue…]

A committee formed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has posted presentation materials from its meeting last week, providing insights into the future timelines for implementing text-to-911 services. According to the Emergency Access Advisory Committee (EAAC), eight jurisdictions are now accepting SMS text messages from citizens who use “911” as the destination number, but added that it could be “many years” before the last public safety answering point (PSAP) adopts the service. The committee primarily handles issues of equal access to the nation’s emergency reporting systems, and has focused on texting 911 as a way to provide improved service to people with disabilities. The presentations covered many of the issues raised when cellular 911 technology was being adopted, including funding, liability and technical standards. For example, one presentation noted that in 2012 there was, “chaos with multiple vendor solutions per city/county/state.” Without standards, “Texting to 9-1-1 (was) in danger of turning into (a) regional service, unlike nationwide voice calling to 9-1-1.” Determining a texter’s location is still problematic, especially for indoor locations. Download (pdf) the individual presentations after the break. [click to continue…]

Oakland (Calif.) officials are asking for $3 million in upgrades for its police-fire communications system, which has been plagued with problems ever since it was first turned on in August 2011. In one case, the P25 trunked radio system failed during a city visit by President Obama, jeopardizing coordination of police officers. The city hired a consultant last year to analyze the radio system and find the source of the problems. The consultant claimed that several AT&T cellular towers in the city were interfering with the Harris Corp. 800 MHz radio system, creating dead zones. Several AT&T towers were turned off or re-tuned, but overall system problems continued. Now city officials say that support systems for the radio network are 15 years old and are degrading system performance. They propose replacing power supplies, generators and fans, and making $1.6 million of comm center upgrades. In a letter to the city’s administrator, they also ask that the city’s usual competitive bidding process be waived to allow direct purchases. In the meantime, the city’s Information Technology department is investigating if the city should join a new regional, two-county, 700 MHz trunked radio network. Download (pdf) the funding report here, and the June 2012 consultant’s report here.

An intense, 28-hour software programming “hackathon” in northern California last month produced 11 new smartphone apps that focused on public safety first responder features. The AT&T-sponsored event drew 70 participants in a half-contest, half-summer camp event that is common among programmers, but which focused on public safety for the very first time. The challenge was focused on three goals related to mobile communications:  assist public safety officials with team communications, situational awareness and location tracking. AT&T invited several first responder representatives to provide programmers with an outline of their needs and to guide them during their work. Representatives from communications and security firms, and several government agencies were also present to provide additional expertise. [click to continue…]

Schenectady (NY) police dispatcher Kris Impellizzeri’s family home was destroyed by a unusual tornado last week, and friends and neighbors are helping to put the family back on its feet. A donation event quickly raised $4,000 for the family.

After several weeks of complaints by dispatchers that a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system has been hampering and delaying operations, New York City officials have admitted that the latest glitch was caused by human error. According to the FDNY, a radio dispatcher failed to notice an injury vehicle accident on her CAD screen before she got up to take her break, creating a four-minute delay in sending EMS units to the incident. A 4 year-old girl died in the accident, but city officials have not specifically blamed the delay for her death. Complaints about the city’s new ICAD software began shortly after it was commissioned a month ago. The software was installed by Intergraph Corp. under an $88 million contract, part of a larger project to improve the city’s emergency communications. Dispatchers say the software freezes up, drops information and completely crashes. Dispatchers have had to operate in manual mode, writing incident information on cards, several times since the software went live. The glitches require dispatchers to frequently re-boot their computers in order to keep operating. The young accident victim was walking with her grandmother in upper Manhattan last Tuesday when a vehicle being pursued by police crashed into them. Witnesses dialed 911 for help and a calltaker created an incident for an EMS dispatch. However, FDNY officials say the assigned radio dispatcher was just about to take her break, and failed to insure a smooth transition of her duties to another dispatcher. The first dispatcher left her console, and it took almost four minutes before the relief dispatcher noticed the incident and assigned units to it. An ambulance arrived on-scene within eight minutes, officials said. The child later died in a hospital. The city council announced today that they will hold hearings next week on the CAD problems. Read more about the latest glitch here, and a follow-up story about the dispatchers’ union position on the problems.

Two stories of dispatcher misconduct broke this week in separate cities, both involving inappropriate statements on the radio and on a social Web site. In one case a radio dispatcher also misinformed responding officers, who then failed to find the victim of a homicide. In the first case, Dallas (Tex.) dispatcher April Sims has been fired for posting racist and other inappropriate comments on her Facebook page. The remarks were noticed by a local TV reporter, who notified the Dallas Police Department. Sims was hired in Dec. 2012 during a hiring binge sparked by an earlier dispatcher mistake. She was still on probation, and so was immediately fired. In one Web posting, she wrote, “Black people are outrageous! They are more like animals, they never know how to act, just loud [expletive] Always causing problems.” Read more here. In the second case, New York City police say a radio dispatcher laughed on the air and broadcast incorrect information about a “check the welfare” incident. An investigation is still underway, officials said. According to police, a psychiatrist called police about a patient who had talked of a dream in which he had killed someone. The patient wasn’t sure if the experience was real or imagined. A calltaker correctly took the information from the doctor, with the intent that officers would be sent to the victim’s home to check on her. However, an unnamed radio dispatcher mistakenly told officers that the patient had called, and wanted officers to check his home for evidence he’d been assaulted. She also was heard to laugh on the logging tape about the incident. Officers arrived, received no answer, and left. Four days later the victim’s relatives discovered her dead in the basement of that same house. Read more about the incident and listen to logging tapes of the incident here.

In the aftermath of a woman’s death from a domestic violence incident, the Pittsburgh (Penn.) police have formalized several policies related to making contact with 911 callers. But the changes were immediately questioned by the city’s civilian review board for not going far enough to protect women who might be prevented from responding to officers knocking on their door. The policy tweaks stem from the death of Ka’sandra Wade last January by her boyfriend, who later killed himself. Wade dialed 911 from a cellular phone, and the calltaker created an “unknown trouble” incident with Priority 2 response. A dispatcher sent veteran officers to the incident, and police officials later said the officers knew the caller had been a female, that there was a commotion during the call, and that the call ended abruptly. The officers didn’t contact Wade, but they did speak to the boyfriend through a window. Police haven’t revealed the content of that conversation, and said the officers did not go inside Wade’s apartment. The officers left without taking action. The next evening Wade’s relatives found her dead inside. It’s not clear if she was alive when the officers arrived at the apartment. This week, police officials said they had established formal policies for handling such calls, which generally mirror the procedures previously in place: attempt contact, and notify a supervisor if the situation warrants. The police department’ Civilian Review Board had recommended a set of 12 policies for consideration to insure a proper response to similar future 911 calls. Read more about the original incident here, and download (pdf) the CRB recommendations here.

An Ohio appellate court has ruled that a county prosecutor illegally withheld a logging tape of a telephone call that had been requested by a newspaper, and that the confession made during the call didn’t provide justification for keeping the call confidential. The incident and court decision demonstrates the complexity of situations that occur when fielding 911 calls, and state laws that attempt to provide some confidentiality of criminal records.  The original incident occurred in June 2012 when Butler County sheriff’s dispatcher Debra Rednour received a 911 call reporting an accidental injury and that someone was not breathing. The call ended abruptly, and Rednour called back the original number. There was no answer, so Rednour dialed the number again. According to police, Michael Ray answered the phone and told Rednour that he was a murderer and needed to be arrested. He provided several other details before deputies arrived to arrest him. He was later charged with murder, and last October a jury found him guilty. In the meantime, the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper requested a copy of the third “confession” telephone call, but county prosecutor Michael Gmoser refused, saying it was exempt from the state’s open records act, and was part of an on-going investigation. The newspaper then sued for release of the phone call, and yesterday the state’s 12th District Court of Appeals made its ruling. The court noted that Rednour made the first call-back to complete gathering medical information after the hang-up call—she did not know if a crime had been committed at that point. The third call was not investigative, Rednour testified during the lawsuit trial, and the court agreed. Rednour is, “neither trained in criminal investigation nor tasked with criminal investigative duties,” the court wrote. Significantly, the court also ruled that Rednour’s outbound telephone calls were legally 911 calls, and subject to the applicable state laws on release. Read more about the case here, and download (pdf) the court’s decision here.

While public safety communications centers and government regulators are focusing on the future of texting 911, technology companies are creating even more exotic methods of dialing 911, including a computer worn as eyeglasses. The fast pace of new tech makes it impossible for comm centers to keep up with the inventions of creative minds, it seems. The latest tech invention is Google Glass, a tiny computer, camera and video screen worn like a pair of eyeglasses, and linked to the Internet. The device is in limited public release now, and has sparked discussions about privacy, social interaction and “dorkiness.” Beyond the cool-looking hardware, Google and others have been promoting what users can actually do with the product, including commerce, email, reference, voice calls, taking photos and videos, and linking to social Web sites like Facebook and Twitter. A Canada-based creative agency has created a video to showcase some of the everyday activities that Google Glass might improve, including a medical emergency. In the hypothetical video, a Glass user discovers his father unconscious and makes a voice call to 911 for help. The user then performs CPR on the patient, using instructions displayed on the Glass video screen. Meanwhile, the dispatcher provides updates on the arrival of an EMS unit. Watch the video after the break. [click to continue…]