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In the midst of a very contentious debate over federal legislation requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, a Supreme Court justice has likened it to requiring citizens to purchase cellular phones so they could dial 911 in an emergency. During oral arguments today over the legality of the health care plan devised by the Obama administration, the justices were trying to decide if the insurance requirement is constitutional, and asked questions of attorneys on both sides. Opponents of the health care plan say the government cannot legally require citizens to engage in commerce. However, supporters say legislation frequently has commerce requirements. During one exchange, Chief Justice John Roberts offered an analogy to U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who represents the government. Roberts said the “market” for emergency services is similar. “You don’t know when you’re going to need it; you’re not sure that you will. But the same is true for health care,” he said. “So, can the government require you to buy a cell phone because that would facilitate responding when  you need emergency services? You can just dial 911 no  matter where you are?” Verrilli replied that it was not a correct analogy. “I think the fundamental difference, Mr. Chief Justice, is that that’s not an issue of market regulation. This is an issue of market regulation,” he said. The arguments continue Wednesday, and a court decision could come by fall. Download (pdf) a transcript of today’s Supreme Court oral arguments for more flavor of the questioning.

In a landmark move for public safety communications in the UK, London’s fire dispatching operations will be outsourced to a private company, saving up to $8 million over the life of a 10-year contract. Today the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority awarded an operations contract to Capita plc, a UK-based company with extensive business process outsourcing experience. Under the plan, the fire service’s entire dispatching force will be transferred to Capita, who will then manage and administer the operation, including handling 999 telephone calls. In a press release the service said, “”This will ensure the best possible deal for London taxpayers and allow the Brigade to focus on its core business of putting out fires, rescuing Londoners and saving lives.” Capita already has contracts with several government clients for “emergency service mobilizing systems,” the service says. However, London will be the first fire brigade in the UK to outsource its emergency call handling. Read more about Capita’s emergency services market here.

Dispatchers at Chicago’s (Ill.) 9-1-1 center are struggling to keep up with a flood of telephone calls and incidents in the first two months of the year after the mayor cut 55 positions, demoted three employees and laid off one calltaker to save money. The result has been almost constant overtime for dispatchers at the Office of Emergency Communications (OEMC), and an increase in the answer time for 911 calls. Mayor Ron Emanuel had wanted to eliminate even more positions for this year’s budget, but union negotiations reduced the number of cut-backs. Now, according to finance department records, police dispatchers worked 10,024 hours of overtime during last Jan.–Feb., compared to 5,247 hours in 2011, a 91 percent increase. Fire dispatcher overtime increased from 1,521 hours during Jan.–Feb. 2011 to 3,504 in 2012, a 130 percent increase. Part of the overtime increase stems from the expiration of an agreement last year that allowed compensatory time for overtime. Now, dispatchers can only receive pay for overtime. The city budgeted $3.2 million for fire department overtime this year, a figure that dispatchers says will likely be exceeded. Read more about the overtime and budget issues here.

Dispatchers at the Los Angeles (Calif.) fire communications center have had to track the status of fire rigs using a pegboard and golf tees, after a series of technical glitches in the fire station alerting and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. The comm center moved into new facility last month, and dispatchers have been using an alerting system that includes voice and tone alerting. That system has not been reliably working, a Los Angeles Times article says, requiring some periods of “radio watch” by firefighters in the stations. Another digital system conveys alarm information and activates stations bells, gongs and lights, and has been operating normally, fire department officials say. Fire chief Brian Cummings and LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa say the glitches are isolated incidents, but firefighters say the responses of at least two critical incidents were affected. Read more about the problems here.

Telephone call logging tapes have been released by the Sanford (Fla.) police department in the aftermath of a fatal shooting of a 17 year-old by a neighborhood watch captain, helping piece together the sequence of events. There was immediate criticism after the Feb. 26th shooting that George Zimmerman should not have continued to follow Trayvon Martin after dialing 911 to report him as suspicious. Some critics of Zimmerman say the 911 dispatcher told him not to follow Martin. However, the logging tape shows the dispatcher’s statements were less definitive. Zimmerman says there was a confrontation with the youth, there was a scuffle and that he shot Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged. Criticism of police inaction mounted until Friday, when police released the tape of Zimmerman’s call. During the call, a dispatcher asked Zimmerman if he was following the person, and then told him, “We don’t need you to do that.” However, Zimmerman continued to drive along following Martin, and eventually the fatal confrontation occurred. Several citizens dialed 911 to report the incident, and one call captured the sound of a gunshot and yells for help. The incident has sparked tension in the town of 55,000 residents north of Orlando, and calls for a federal investigation. Listen to the logging tapes here to determine if the dispatcher’s statements were definitive enough, and read more about the incident here.

Just weeks after an unknown person telephoned a SWATing call to the Sarasota (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, a Michigan legislator has introduced a bill that would  make it a felony to intentionally make a false report of an emergency, and increase the prison time if an injury or death occurs. The bill would also add the crime to the list of offenses where a judge can order restitution to public safety agencies that handled the incident. Previously, state law prohibited false reports of crimes. Rep. Curt Heise told reporters that besides tying up valuable law enforcement, fire and EMS resources, SWATing calls put innocent people in jeopardy. Download (pdf) a copy of the proposed bill here, and read more about SWATing here.

Law enforcement agencies in the Tampa (Fla.) region are making plans to manage security and communications for the August convention of the Republican party, hoping to avoid a lack of coordination during the 2008 convention in St. Paul (Minn.) that left officers uninformed about anarchists who pillaged the downtown for two hours without police intervention. The Tampa city council intends to approve spending $6 million for over 1,900 new radios, along with other law enforcement equipment paid by a $50 million federal grant. City officials say the radios will link almost 3,000 law enforcement from their department, the Hillsborough County Sheriff and from agencies brought in from surrounding counties. The officials say the 2008 convention radio network put officers on separate systems, a situation that the Tampa plan will eliminate. Read more about the 2012 convention plans here, and download (pdf) the 2008 post-convention public safety report here.

To bring improve 911 services to customers of VoIP communications services, Canada’s telcom regulatory agency is now requiring major carriers to modify their contracts, essentially putting them in charge of enforcing certain customer notification requirements. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued the decision on Wednesday after considering comments from the public and involved companies. The use of 911 over VoIP voice has certain limitations, including a lack of transmitted ANI/ALI, and that voice service may not be available at all during a power outage. The CTRC previously required VoIP carriers to notify their customers of all the limitations at sign-up, and to obtain a physical address for routing 911 calls, much like Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations in the United States. However, the CRTC rules now allow the agency to seek disconnection of VoIP carriers who violate the rules. Download (pdf) the CRTC’s decision here.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that Jersey City (NJ) dispatchers are immune from a civil lawsuit filed by the family of a woman and her two children who were murdered in 2005. The ruling overturned an lower court ruling, and established that the state law provides immunity for public employees who are dispatching public safety incidents. Marcia Wilson and her three children were stabbed by Wilson’s brother in an apartment at 207 Wegman Street in Jersey City. A neighbor tenant dialed 911 to say he’d heard a disturbance, but gave the incorrect addresses of 277 Wegman to the state police dispatcher who answered his cellular call, and 185 Wegman to the Jersey City dispatcher after the call was transferred. About 22 hours later the original caller dialed 911 again to say he could hear noises inside the apartment, and to report no officers arrived in response to his previous call. The Jersey City dispatcher chastised the caller for dialing 911, and the caller hung up. The next day one of the stabbed children managed to dial 911 himself, and police responded—they found Marcia Wilson and two children dead, but a nine year-old survived.  The family filed a lawsuit, claiming the family might have survived if the handling dispatchers had correctly handled the 911 calls. But the trial court dismissed the lawsuit, saying the defendant dispatchers were immune under state law. An appeals court reversed that ruling, but now the Supreme Court has affirmed that public safety dispatchers are immune for any negligence in delivering 911 services. [click to continue…]

Public safety dispatchers in some parts of the country are struggling to handle 911 calls from users of a new designer drug labeled as “bath salts,” which can cause hallucinations that may sound like legitimate emergencies. In fact, the substance is not ordinary bath salts, which add fragrance or cleaning features to bath water, but is a manufactured drug marketed to avoid federal drug labeling and sales laws. Besides hallucinations, the drug can cause serious medical symptoms such as high body temperature, rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure. A news story from Sullivan County (Tenn.) says dispatchers there have received at least 100 calls from bath salt users, some saying spiders are crawling on them or people are chasing them, and describing strange surroundings. Because the callers are hallucinating, they frequently cannot describe their surroundings clearly enough to obtain a location for a response. Law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country have encountered bath salt users after they have become extremely violent, much like PCP users. The agencies say a proper response is both a law enforcement and EMS agency to handle the violence and medical symptoms respectively.

There have been no complaints from Blair County (Penn.) 911 dispatchers after the county switched to 12-hour shifts, because besides now having some weekends off, the county raised their pay from 30 to 35 percent, and there is less mandatory overtime. The county also sees the huge pay increase as a “win,” since it will greatly reduce overtime pay, and help begin to retain the constant flow of veteran dispatchers resigning and new dispatchers being trained. In fact, 911 center director Mark Taylor aid just four dispatchers remain of the team of 34 that existed in 2007. He said the turnover created an expense of at least $217,500 in training that was wasted. The turnover also created vacancies that had to be filled with overtime, and stressed the dispatchers who had to work that overtime. Read more about the staffing situation, how the pay hike was justified, and the dispatchers’ reactions here.

The Florida state senate has unanimously passed a bill that would modify the current dispatcher training certification law, exempting law enforcement officers from certain requirements, including hands-on training, before they can handle dispatching duties. House Bill 1227 previously passed the House on a 130-0 vote, and the bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. The bill was opposed by the Florida chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), who says it will “greatly compromise” the training certification law, which the legislature passed in April 2008 after years of lobbying by the APCO chapter. In an email to APCO members, chapter president Robert Scott said the bill passed because, “They did not hear from enough of us who were opposed to the Bill.” He claimed that Gov. Scott would consider a veto, “because the Bill will cost money and it will ultimately reduce the need for a minimum level of certification.” Scott urged members to write the governor to express their opposition to the bill. Check legislative action on the bill here.

After the San Francisco (Calif.) transit district turned off cellular service within its underground stations last November during an Occupy protest, there was criticism the practice put subway riders in jeopardy if they needed to dial 911 for an emergency. No incidents occurred during the outage, which was intended to prevent protesters from coordinating their actions within the stations. But now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a call for feedback on the issue of deliberately interrupting cellular services by government agencies, raising the issue of public safety, including the inability to dial 911 if needed. The commission is asking for documentation of past interruptions, how they were legally justified and technically performed, and if they were effective in any way. Also, the FCC asked, “Can wireless carriers implement a general service interruption, but still ensure that the public can make wireless 911 calls? Would a service disruption that permits wireless 911 calls, but otherwise prohibits voice, text, and data communications, achieve the same purpose as a blanket interruption? Would it pose any unique risks to persons with disabilities?” Download (pdf) the FCC’s request for comments for more details.

The Arizona Highway Patrol Association (AHPA) has launched a publicity and lobbying campaign against sweeping legislation that would change the state’s personnel rules to be more like the private sector, including reclassifying AHP dispatchers as at-will employees. House Bill 2571 is being promoted as a way to simplify nine separate personnel systems within state government, restructure the grievance and appeal system, and give managers more authority to terminate poor performance employees. However, in its “We Are DPS” campaign, the AHPA points out that law enforcement is a “diverse, specialized field and should not be generalized with other state departments.” In turn, civilians are a cost-saving resource for law enforcement and are asked to perform some of the same duties as our sworn officers, the association says. “DPS civilians have promised their integrity to Arizona citizens,” the group says, and must pass the same criminal background checks, polygraphs and drug testing as officers before being hired. The AHPA says that state government should protect the integrity of police services. “ONE merit system council provides ONE standard of service in a specialized industry. The public should always trust police work,” the group says. Watch a Arizona House committee meeting video on the bill, with testimony against the bill from 23-year veteran dispatch supervisor Patty Simpson. Read the AHPA Web page on the issue and download (pdf) their brochure on the issue.

The Sarasota County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office is investigating a call from a person who claimed he killed his parents, had a bomb and was suicidal, but investigators determined it was a prank known as SWATing. During a 14-minute call on a non-emergency telephone line last Sunday evening, the caller was hysterical and emotional, gave his name as Ryan and said he was 15 years-old. According to the Herald-Tribune newspaper, 33 deputies and seven crews of fire and EMS personnel responded to the address, but then discovered all the caller’s information was false. The residents of the house were not involved in the prank, investigators said. SWATing calls are usually made with the assistance of Internet voice carriers, and sometimes with the assistance of so-called “spoofing” services that allow the caller to display a false telephone number to emergency services. Listen to the prank call here.