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A huge pile-up of 80 cars and trucks along an Interstate highway in Hamilton County (Ohio) last week required the focus and professionalism of the dispatchers handling the incident, and also left the comm center staff with sad memories of a 12 year-old girl who died in the accident. The county Department of Communications’ after-action report detailed all the facts and figures, but also included the personal recollections of veteran dispatcher  Barrett Cohen, who fielded a 911 call reporting that Sammy Reagan was in the midst of the accident, and wasn’t breathing. Most poignantly, Cohen recalls hearing Sammy’s mother telling her young daughter, “Sammy, it’s mommy, wake up!” The young girl did not survive the accident, but first responders did save 30 other injured motorists among the 80 involved vehicles. Dispatchers fielded 43 calls on 911 within the first six minutes, the county report noted, and coordinated responses from eight jurisdictions, along with 50 tow trucks from private companies. Interstate 275 was closed for five hours as rescues were made, the investigation was performed and the road finally cleared. Download (pdf) the after-action report with Cohen’s story, and watch a news interview with him after the break. [click to continue…]

A Little Rock (Ark.) police dispatcher has been placed on paid leave during an investigation into the handling of an auto accident that resulted in a woman’s death and the hospitalization of her 5 year-old son. The unnamed dispatcher answered a wireless 911 call transferred from a Pulaski County sheriff’s dispatcher, during which a woman reported her car had skidded into a pond and was sinking. The police department says the dispatcher promptly notified the metro EMS service of the incident so they would send an ambulance. However, the dispatcher failed to enter an incident into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system for dispatch of the city’s police or fire department. That omission resulted in a 22-minute dispatch delay for the fire department’s water rescue team, which had the necessary training and gear to enter the water, officials say. Both the 39 year-old woman and her son were rescued from the car alive, but the woman died later at the hospital. The young boy remained in critical condition at the hospital. Read the police department’s press release after the break.
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For the first time, America’s public safety dispatchers will have a feature-length movie of their own when Actress Halle Berry appears in the “The Call,” opening March 15th. The movie tells the gripping story of a Los Angeles (Calif.) police dispatcher trying to save a child from a crazed kidnapper. In the movie trailer, Berry’s character appears in a techno-center wearing a fashionable LAPD polo shirt, talking to women who were the victims of the kidnapper. The movie was directed by Brad Anderson, who has done several low-profile movies, several episodes of the “Fringe” TV series, and several other TV shows. According to Sony/TriStar, “When veteran 911 operator, Jordan (Halle Berry), takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.” In the still released by the studio, Berry is squeezing a red stress ball as she sits at the console. Check the IMDB Web site for the complete cast information and the movie’s official Web site. Update: The movie premiered March 16th to decent reviews that liked the first two-thirds of the movie, but thought the last one-third was improbable. [click to continue…]

Last June’s “derecho” wind storm caused 77 public safety answering points (PSAP) in seven states to lose some degree of 911 connectivity, a situation that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today called “unacceptable,” and pledged to fix by strengthening the reliability and resilience of the nation’s 911 networks. The quickly-moving storm claimed 22 lives as it moved from central Iowa to the Atlantic coast with winds up to 75 mph, knocking out power and communications lines that affected public safety answering points (PSAP). The commission announced its plans after receiving a 56-page report that detailed how PSAPs serving 3.6 million residents were affected by the winds, “mostly due to service provider network problems,” the report said. There were isolated 911 outages in Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Indiana, according to the report, and complete system failures in northern Virginia and West Virginia, including some that last several days. [click to continue…]

A Michigan comm center supervisor is on a mission to put a public spotlight on public safety dispatchers with a weekly podcast, and is now seeking funding to bring the project to life. Ricardo Martinez says he realized that most dispatchers were hidden behind secure doors and the public had only a vague idea of exactly what they do. So he began a project to provide an explanation of a dispatcher’s world, originally via a written blog. But now Martinez wants to expand his spotlight to include other dispatchers voices—literally—with a live audio podcast. “The point of the show is to give a better look at what we do and tell the stories of the dispatchers that answer the call,” Martinez says on his Kickstarter fund-raising page. He envisions bringing up to four dispatchers together electronically each week to explain and discuss dispatching topics. “It’s a way for us to open up about our experiences and allow the public to get another angle of the story,” he says. Martinez has set a goal of $1,500 for audio gear that will enable the expanded podcast. The fund-raising ends on Saturday, and he is accepting pledges from $5 and up. Find more information and help fund the podcast from the Kickstarter page, and listen to the first episode of his audio blog. Update: Within 24 hours of this story, Martinez exceeded his goal, with 30 backers pledging $1,771. Update: A local newspaper profiled Martinez, who talked about how his career began and his podcast project, and a TV station also did a story about his new podcast. [click to continue…]

Public safety dispatchers will be answering more cellular 911 calls in 2013, as a federal survey has found that over one-third of American households shave abandoned their wired telephones and rely only on a wireless connection. The survey results have implications for dispatchers handling 911 calls, including obtaining precise locations from cellular callers. Not surprisingly, residents in the 25 to 29 year-old age group were most likely to have a cellular-only connection, as were households composed of unrelated adults. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) performed the survey during the first six months of 2012, and found that 35.8 percent of households no longer have a wired telephone, relying instead on a cellular phone. That figure is the latest annual increase since the CDC began asking the survey question in 2008, when the figure was less than five percent. People who rent are twice as likely to have a wireless-only phone as home owners (58.2% vs. 28.2%), and those living in poverty have a higher cellular-only rate than those with higher incomes. View a graph of the annual figures after the break, and download (pdf) the survey summary here. [click to continue…]

In the wake of the Newtown (Conn.) school massacre, a national standards organization has released a new protocol for handling active shooter incidents, and is allowing any communications center to use the information without the group’s usual licensing restrictions. The International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) posted their Police Protocol 136  today as part of their well-established set of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical set of call-handling cards. According to the group, the protocol was developed, “to address these very extreme and dynamic incidents by providing responding law enforcement officers with an immediate notification of the event, followed quickly by critical scene safety information.” Using the protocol, a 911 calltaker would provide pre-arrival instructions, including lock-down or evacuation advice, and collect information about the suspect, including description, weapons and location. The IAED notes that the protocol is copyrighted, and it provides a “pre-implementation awareness” document for agencies who plan to use the information. The IAED has previously released other key protocols for general use, including ones that covered stuck vehicle accelerators and vehicles submerged in water. Read today’s press release announcing the protocol release here, and find the new protocol itself here. Also download (pdf) the full explanation of Protocol 136, which provides background on the questions and advice contained in the protocol.

Tomasz KaczowkaAn off-duty Monroe County (NY) 911 dispatcher who also served as a volunteer firefighter was shot and killed this morning when a gunman set up an ambush by setting several fires. A Webster police lieutenant was also killed as he arrived to battle the fires as a volunteer, and two other volunteer firefighters were wounded by gunfire. Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, had worked as a dispatcher at the Monroe County-Rochester Emergency Communications Department for just over one year, and previously had been in the local Explorer program. Comm center director John Merklinger said he was the center’s youngest member. Besides his job and volunteer fire activities, Kaczowka was  attending Monroe Community College. Also killed was Webster police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, a long-time member of the fire department and former fire chief. His 19 year-old son Nick was working as an EMS dispatcher when the incident occurred, and heard the incident unfold on the radio. All four shooting victims arrived on-scene at about 5:30 a.m. after a 911 caller reported flames from a house and vehicle. Kaczowka was sleeping over at the Webster firehouse so older firefighters with children could have holiday time-off, officials said.  The suspect opened fire on the firefighters with a rifle, apparently from a nearby hillside. The two fires spread to eight homes while SWAT teams evacuated the neighborhood and searched for the gunman. Police said the suspect was released from prison in 1998 on murder charges, but had been living a quiet life since his parole expired in 2006. Find information about Kaczowka’s comm center here, and the West Webster Fire Department here. The obituary for Kaczowka is posted here, and a remembrance of Kaczowka is posted here. [click to continue…]

On the heels of a voluntary commitment last week by the nation’s four cellular carriers to provide text-to-911 service by May 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued its own proposal to formally require the service, with “significant deployments” in 2013. In a press release issued yesterday, the commission said implementing text-to-911 will, “keep pace with how consumers communicate today and can provide a lifesaving alternative in situations where a person with a hearing or speech disability is unable to make a voice call.” But the commission also emphasized, “Text-to-911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, existing voice-based 911 service, and that consumers should always make a voice call to 911 during an emergency if they can.” Like the carriers, the FCC proposed that “bounce back” no-service warning messages for cellular subscribers in areas not served by text-to-911. The commission also made proposals to speed up the implementation of a nationwide next-generation 911 (NG911) network. Download (pdf) the press release on the action and the prepared remarks of the FCC commissioners here, and the full Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here. [click to continue…]

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.