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The mayor of South Bend (Ind.) has demoted the police chief and fired the public safety communications center director after meeting with federal Department of Justice officials about telephone logging tapes, but his explanation of the incident is contradictory, and the statements of others raise questions about the mayor’s real motives for taking action. The situation began small, but has now swirled into a public controversy that includes the city council, the mayor, the DOJ, the press and teams of attorneys for all sides. The situation began in April 2011 when comm center director Karen DePaepe says she was performing a routine tape review,  and heard remarks on a recorded line that were inappropriate. The tapes haven’t been released and no one will characterize the inappropriate remarks, believed to be racial in nature. DePaepe reported the conversations to the chief, but nothing happened publicly until January 2012, when DePaepe was contacted by a federal investigator as a witness in an investigation about the tapes. Then in March, mayor Pete Buttigieg began a personnel action against police chief Darryl Boykins, and the city asked DePaepe to resign. However, DePaepe declined to quit, and was then fired—without the appropriate notice or paperwork, DePaepe claims. Since then Buttigieg has refused to explain the matter, saying only that the DOJ officials were threatening to file criminal wiretapping charges DePaepe. Other sources dispute that the DOJ intended to file charges, and that the agency never trades personnel actions for the prosecution of a federal criminal case. DePaepe’s attorney said DePaepe is considering a federal lawsuit over her firing. Read a timeline here, DePaepe’s account of the incident to a reporter here, and Buttigieg’s justification for the personnel actions here.

A lengthy newspaper investigation of Los Angeles Fire Department dispatch times shows that fewer incidents are being dispatched within a 60-second standard over the past five years, leading to a 26 percent increase in call handling times for medical incidents. The Los Angeles Times study of 1 million incidents determined that it took an average of one minute and 45 seconds to dispatch a medical incident last year, compared to just 1:23 in 2007. The city’s fire department now dispatches incidents within 60 seconds only 15 percent of the time, compared to 38.5 percent in 2007. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the dispatch times began turning worse in 2008, at about the same time the city and departmental budgets began to squeeze staffing at the fire department and its communications center. The newspaper’s figures add to an existing controversy over overall fire department response times that erupted earlier this year. A candidate for mayor questioned how the fire department calculated response times, and LAFD officials admitted they were using a six-minute performance goal, one minute longer than the nationally-accepted five-minute goal. [click to continue…]

A Hamilton County (Tenn.) dispatcher who was fired for misusing the comm center’s computer chat system says she was singled out during the investigation, and that supervisors never told her what she and other dispatchers were doing was against policy. Teresa McIntosh worked at the Hamilton County 911 Unified Emergency Communications District, and was among 11 dispatchers disciplined for using the chat system for personal communications that included “disrespectful, mutinous, insolent or abusive language.” McIntosh spoke to a WRCB television news reporter about the incident, and said supervisors have known about how dispatchers were uing the system “for a long time.” She admitted the chat messages included conversations about favoritism among supervisors, including racial preferences. “There were those, both black and white, who agreed that there is favoritism with the supervisors,” she said during the interview. “As far as respect, I have given as much respect as I received,” McIntosh said. The comm center apparently does not have a specific policy on using the chat system, but disciplined the dispatchers under general provisions of the district’s Code of Conduct. Read more about interview here, and watch the video news report after the break. Update: KCCB-TV has learned more information about the situation, including the involved dispatchers’ personnel files. [click to continue…]

A Denver (Colo.) 911 dispatcher has been fired for mishandling a 911 call from the victim of a road rage incident who was later murdered when he returned to the scene of the incident at the dispatcher’s instruction. The unnamed dispatcher had been on paid administrative leave during an investigation of the April 1st incident. The family of victim Jimmy Reat said they are still upset about the incident, but feel the city appropriately fired the dispatcher. Reat was involved in a road rage incident in suburban Denver, and then drove home a short distance to Wheat Ridge to report the incident. However, the Denver dispatcher told Reat he would have to return to Denver to report the incident to police. When Reat and three friends arrived in the area of the incident, they waited in their parked car for police. However, the other person in the incident drove by and opened fire on Reat and his friends. Reat was fatally injured. The suspect’s vehicle was later found, but was determined to be stolen. No suspect has been arrested. Carl Simpson, executive director of Denver 911, said the dispatcher should have contacted Wheat Ridge police to coordinate taking a police report. “I will tell you we didn’t do our best work that night,” Simpson said. Read more about the firing here.

An analysis of a Tucson (Ariz.) father’s 911 to police shows that his 6 year-old daughter was not kidnapped, according to a Web blogger, but the analysis falls short of concluding what really happened to the girl. Isabel Celis disappeared from her room during the night of April 21st, and her father Sergio dialed 911 about 8:48 a.m. the next morning. “I need to report a, uh, missing child,” Celis told the calltaker. At one point Celis appears to laugh or chuckle, and throughout his demeanor is calm and detached. The father’s 911 call has generated public debate about the fate of the girl, and even speculation the father is involved in his disappearance. On a Web site devoted to the practice of “statement analysis,” blogger Seamus O’Riley looked at the words that Celis uses in reporting his missing daughter, and also outlined how 911 calls in general can be analyzed. For example, he says repeated use of the word “and” indicates missing connective information, and the word “just” should be used when comparing two or more thoughts. Read the statement analysis of Celis’ 911 call here (transcript, pdf), and O’Riley’s conclusion that the incident was not an abduction here. Also ready O’Riley’s remarks on caller emotions during 911 calls here.

When a Gilbert (Ariz.) dispatcher answered a 911 call last week, she was immediately swept into an horrific murder-suicide that took five lives, with the lone survivor on the phone hiding in a bedroom and sobbing uncontrollably. Over the next eight minutes the unnamed dispatcher worked to obtain information from the 19 year-old caller, whose mother, sister and two other relatives lay dead at the front of the house of gunshot wounds. Also dead was Jason Ready, who killed himself. On the dramatic logging tape of the call, the dispatcher tries to balance the safety of the caller and the need for information as officers arrive. The dispatcher’s questions move from basic to specific, eventually leading to what Ready looks like and what he’s wearing, as officers arrive and need to confirm the shooter is dead. The call ends as it began, with the caller crying and sobbing, being led from the house by an officer. Listen to the daughter’s 911 call here, and also a dispatcher’s call-back to a neighbor who dialed 911 to report that he heard gunfire.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has released a consultant’s 134-page report critical of the city’s $2.1 billion 911 calltaking system—after a judge ordered its release—and critics immediately said the original document had been heavily edited by the mayor’s office to delete even more criticism by the consultant. The report confirmed what critics and even the city’s auditor have said previously about the system, including poor call handling by calltakers, lack of standard calltaking policies, poor performance analysis, and a lack of complete integration of the city’s public safety communications. The analysis by Winbourne Consulting LLC also clearly demonstrates the complexity of creating an effective and efficient emergency response system in America’s big cities. The report was ordered after response probles to the 2010 blizzard that hit the city. However, after Winbourne delivered the report to the city last year, Bloomberg refused to release it to the public, saying that its release would inhibit his administration from making decisions on the recommendations. A state judge disagreed with Bloomberg’s position and last month ordered him to release the report. Last Friday Bloomberg’s office released only paper copies of the report, and said it was the complete Winbourne analysis. However, the city firefighters’ union and other critics claim the as-delivered report was 216 pages, and that pages were removed. City officials have denied that claim. [click to continue…]

Ready or not, public safety comm center will begin receiving 911 text messages from some Verizon Wireless customers starting early next year, the company has announced. In a press release last Thursday, Verizon said it has selected TeleCommunications Systems Inc. to “participate in an initiative” to allow its cellular customers to send SMS text messages requesting emergency assistance. The press release did warn its customers they should, “always first try to contact a 911 center by making a voice call,” but said SMS text messages, “will offer an alternative for customers on the Verizon Wireless network who are deaf or hard of hearing and cannot make voice calls or who could be placed in additional danger by speaking.” Verizon spokesperson Marjorie Hsu described Verizon as, “at the forefront of 911 public-safety innovations.” However, Hsu did also not describe the many identified problems with using text messages to transmit emergency messages, including no intelligent routing, no guarantee of delivery, no guarantee of timely delivery, no acknowledgement to the sender, and no location data sent with the text message. There are just a handful of comm centers now accepting text messages sent to 911, and there are no standardized policies and procedures for handling emergency text messages. Some comm center managers are afraid 911 text messaging will dramatically increase the number of prank and accidental messages to comm centers. Read a comparison of a 911 voice calls and 911 text messages here, and on that Web page also download (pdf) a study of text messaging limitations written by an independent group.

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has waived its long-standing narrowbanding mandate, but only for public safety agencies that will eventually have to vacate T-Band frequencies under new legislation. The ruling last Thursday means that cities that are assigned 470-512 MHz frequencies can now focus their time and money on moving to other frequency bands—possibly 700/800 MHz—and not on the process of upgrading their radios to allow narrowband transmissions. The FCC issued its original narrowbanding orders in 1995, and set a deadline of January 2013. The order requires users of 150-173 MHz and 421-512 MHz frequencies to move from 25 kHz-wide channels to 12.5 kHz channels. For medium and large-sized users, the process can be time-consuming and expensive, especially since the radio systems must be in continuous use. The narrowbanding process has been complicated by passage of tax legislation in February that also funded a nationwide public safety wireless network, but also mandated a give-back of the T-Band spectrum. In its waiver last week, the FCC acknowledged the dual requirements for T-Band users that the legislation crated: narrowband by next January and vacate about nine years later. “Continuing to require narrowbanding could force many licensees in the band to invest in narrowband systems that may subsequently have to be relocated,” the FCC noted. “We conclude that it would be inequitable and contrary to the public interest.” The commission said it’s still committed to a “timely” transition to narrowband technology relieve spectrum congestion, and will consider how long waiver relief should remain in effect. Download (pdf) the FCC’s order and read a news story about one agency’s reaction.

Officials of the Hamilton County (Tenn.) Emergency Communications District have confirmed that 11 dispatchers have been either fired or suspended without pay for violation of the comm center’s policy on using the an instant-messaging system. According to an attorney representing two of the fired dispatchers, the inappropriate messages contained criticism of other employees, including supervisors. In a press release, officials of the center said that last October they that some dispatchers might be misusing the instant messaging system that is part of the center’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software. They began reviewing messages created on the system, totaling 8,700 pages of text. At the end of the investigation, center director John Stuermer said that 11 dispatchers were found to have violated the center’s policy on use of the messaging, and were disciplined. He declined to release specifics, including the names of the dispatchers. “Further details into the investigation and disciplinary actions will be made available after the employee’s right of appeal process is finalized,” officials said in a press release.” Officials stressed that the inappropriate messaging never affected emergency operations. “We found no evidence that the District’s ability to provide timely emergency service to citizens or first responders was impaired or jeopardized,” the press release stated. Attorney Jerry Tidwell, who told reporters he represents two of the fired dispatchers, said one of his clients questions why some dispatchers were fired and others were suspended. All the dispatchers have 14 day to appeal their discipline. News video after the break. [click to continue…]

Police in New Jersey have still not been able to trace the origin of a 911 call made last month by a man who said he had an AK-47 across from a school and intended to start shooting students. “I’m at Hackettstown High School and watching the kids,” the man told a dispatcher during one of two disjointed calls. The man used broken English and told the dispatcher he was at various locations during the call. Because of the various locations the caller gave, police sealed off the high school and six other city schools for four hours, along with the city library. Investigators say the call originated from a cellular phone, which has complicated tracing the caller. Also, the logging tape of the second call had “problems,” police said, affecting the production of a transcript. Officials didn’t provide a further explanation of the problem. Download (pdf) the full 911 call transcript here.

A quick-thinking and persistent Michigan dispatcher was able to convince a motorist to pull over and surrender to police, ending an 80 mph chase with no injuries and an arrest. Luis Bonilla-Machado, 25, had been reported as suicidal by his wife, and failed to yield to an officer who spotted him running a red light. Apparently scared to stop, Bonilla-Machado dialed 911 and reached Allegan County Central Dispatch dispatcher Tammy Gane. Over the next eight minutes Ganes gave the driver specific instructions to pull over, including “Hit your brakes,” and, “Put your car in park.” Center assistant director Tammy Bruce told a reporter that Gane was, “empathetic to the situation, thinking of his safety as well as the officers responding.” Police said they found cocaine in the car and on Bonilla-Machado’s face after his arrest. Listen to the logging tape of the 911 call here.

Four East Cleveland (Ohio) firefighters were forced to bail out of the second story of a vacant home last week after their portable radio call for water wasn’t heard by the pump operator, and flames nearly cut off their escape route. Fire officials say two firefighters fell 15 feet into a side yard, while the other two crawled onto the front porch roof and were rescued by colleagues with a ladder. One firefighter was taken to a hospital but later released. Fire officials said a faulty radio may have contributed to the problem. In fact, video of the radios shows that East Cleveland is using a business grade model of Motorola radios. More significantly, the two pictured radios both had major antenna damage that appears to have occurred from use before the fire, not during the incident itself. The city’s mayor says new radios have already been purchased and will be put into service immediately. He didn’t explain why the new radios hadn’t been distributed earlier. View the radios and watch a video after the break. [click to continue…]

Officials at a regional Washington state communications center have issued a mildly-worded letter of reprimand to the dispatcher who handled a 911 call from a social worker last February, minutes before the parent she was supervising set fire to his house, killing himself and two young children. The Tacoma-based Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA) delivered the letter of reprimand to 18-year veteran dispatcher Davd Lovrak for allegedly violating the center’s mission statement, and three statements from the center’s operations manual on trust, “concern and courtesy,” and responsiveness. The agency found that Lorvak did not actually mishandle the 911 call or violate more substantive sections of the operations manual. In fact, the reprimand letter written by LESA assistant director Diana Lock said Lovrak correctly prioritized the incident, had no premise information on which to rely, and correctly did not rely on Phase II 911 location information because, “it can be extremely inaccurate.” Much of the letter recounted a “fact-finding” that Lock had with Lovrak, during which he admitted his errors and justified his actions. Lock summed up, “Could you have handled this call better? Yes, and you have been the first to admit that.”  Lock concluded that a written reprimand was the appropriate discipline. “If the outcome had been different I feel a Written Record of Counseling would be warranted,” she wrote without explanation. The social worker dialed 911 to report Josh Powell, who was the focus of several police investigations and was in the midst of a custody battle with his wife. When the social worker delivered the children to his home for a supervised visit, Powell slammed the door shut. Shortly after, the house erupted in flames. Download (pdf) Lovrak’s letter of reprimand here., and read more about the original incident here.

The sons of a 67 year-old Berkeley (Calif.) man who was bludgeoned to death last February have called for improvements in the way dispatchers handle incidents, especially during times when police responses are restricted. Peter Cukor was struck with a ceramic pot and killed by a man who was later declared incompetent to stand trial because of his psychiatric condition. Cukor called police to report the suspect was on his property and acting erratically. At the time police were preparing for an Occupy Oakland march and were only handling Priority 1 incidents—the calltaker classified Cukor’s incident as Priority 2. Police did not respond until Cukor’s wife dialed 911 to report he was being assaulted. During a press conference last week, Cukor’s adult sons said police calltakers should inform callers of the assigned priority of their incident and given an approximate response time. Dispatchers should also receive training to better evaluate the circumstances of incidents reported by citizens, the sons said. The Cukors also called upon Alameda County adopt a law that would more effectively handle people with psychiatric conditions, saying the suspect should have been locked up “years ago.” Download (pdf) the family’s statement here.