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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.

In the wake of proposed rules by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to implement text-to-911 service, a wireless communications group says the FCC doesn’t have the legal authority to make the rules, and that SMS has significant limitations in reporting emergencies. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) submitted formal comments earlier this month raising the issues in response to proposed rules the FCC issued last September to quickly deploy text-to-911 services. The CTIA takes makes both legal and technical objections to the FCC’s proposals presented in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) last year, but does acknowledge the “considerable” benefits of IP communications for those with hearing disabilities. The group says any interim NG911 solution should be “voluntary, collaborative (and) industry-drive,” rather than a mandated process focused on short-term goals. First, the CTIA claims the FCC does not currently have the authority to regulate SMS messaging, disputing the FCC’s claims that existing law provides the authority. The group picks apart the FCC’s specific claims of authority in the NPRM. The CTIA also raises specific technical concerns about SMS as a way to contact emergency services. “Wireless carriers, equipment manufacturers, and Public Safety entities all have highlighted numerous shortcomings of SMS-to-911 as an interim solution,” the CTIA wrote, and urged the FCC not mandate any interim text-to-911 solution based on SMS. The shortcoming includes possible transmission delays, the sender receives no acknowledgement of delivery and no intelligent routing. Download (pdf) the CTIA’s comments. [click to continue…]

A nine-year veteran Wood County (Wisc.) dispatcher has been suspended for 30 days without pay for mishandling a 911 call reporting a man limping along a highway in the early morning. That man, Greg Senn, was reported missing by his family later in the day, and has still not been found despite extensive searching. Dispatcher Brian Turner fielded the call (mp3) from a passerby at 6:25 a.m, but did not use an interpretation service to obtain information from the Spanish-speaking caller, and failed to send a Grand Rapids officer to investigate the man. He also failed to log the call and tell police about the call during the search and investigation, despite his position as a part-time Grand Rapids police officer. A letter of discipline (pdf) said Turner, “failed to handle the call in an appropriate manner,” but did not mention Turner’s specific errors. Comm center manager Kelly Zenz told reporters that “all aspects” of the call were considered to justify the discipline. “In that type of incident somebody should have been sent for a welfare check on that person,” he said. After serving the unpaid suspension, Turner must sign a corrective plan, and the discipline letter warned that future errors may result in termination. Turner has the right to appeal the discipline, but has not indicated if he will do so. The Senn family has criticized the discipline, saying they believe Turner should have been fired. The 911 call was revealed a month after Senn disappeared, when a police officer was questioning the 911 caller about an unrelated incident. Turner was then put on paid leave during the internal investigation that led to his discipline. Read a critical letter to the editor written before Turner was disciplined.

To be clear, there is no simple way to learn a foreign language, especially for a speciality such as law enforcement or emergency communications. You must study, listen and practice to gain a useful level of communications with non-English speakers. But now the second edition of “Tactical Spanish” by Jose Blanco has been published, providing an organized and convenient method of learning the necessary words and phrases for handling 911 calls and other situations a public safety dispatcher might encounter. The product consists of a pocket-sized, spiral-bound book packed with short lessons and translations, and and a set of three audio CDs of pronunciations. Author Blanco is a former police officer who developed a Spanish language book several years ago. Now he has partnered with Lexis-Nexis to market this updated edition. The book is organized into short lessons on language, grammar and words at the front, and categories of common phrases at the back. Blanco includes people/vehicle descriptions, making stops and arrests, reports and emergency communications, “danger expressions,” slang, and gang information. Each section is organized into side-by-side columns of English and Spanish phrases, with the Spanish pronunciation included. The emergency communications section of the book is just 20 of the  book’s 151 pages. But translations from many other sections can also be useful to dispatchers. The CD set’s recordings are organized into sections like the book. Each recording consists of Blanco pronouncing the English-Spanish translations twice for clarity. I have a couple of quibbles: the book is printed on very thin paper that might tear out or get worn over time as you turn the pages to find translations. Also, when using an application like iTunes to play the CD recordings, the recordings aren’t titled or otherwise identified. Fortunately Blanco states the section name at the very beginning of each recording, which makes browsing easier. The book/CD set is available now from Lexis-Nexis on-line for $24. — Gary Allen, Editor [click to continue…]

A federal examination of a proposed nationwide mobile broadband network for public safety has determined it will not support mission-critical voice communications for the foreseeable future, forcing agencies to continue using their separate—and non-interoperable—radio systems to handle everyday communications. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) completed the report at the request of Congress, and in their 62-page report released yesterday said there were many challenges to creating a broadband network—ensuring the network’s interoperability, reliability, and security; obtaining adequate funds to build and maintain it; and creating a governance structure. The GAO also focused on handheld radios, saying they often cost thousands of dollars because, “market competition is limited and manufacturing costs are high.” The GAO determined that, “Public safety agencies cannot exert buying power in relationship to device manufacturers, which may result in the agencies overpaying for LMR devices.” The GAO based its conclusions partly on interviews with officials from six of the 22 jurisdictions that were granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin deploying 700 MHz broadband systems. Download (pdf) the GAO’s full report.

The White House was in the spotlight today for public safety communications, as President Obama signed legislation that will allocate spectrum and funding for a nationwide wireless network, and Vice-President Biden met with public safety leaders to discuss a new report on the economic benefits of wireless broadband. After years of lobbying, both houses of Congress approved legislation last week that allocates the D Block to public safety, would provide $7 billion in funding for a wireless network, and set up grand funding for NG911 implementation. This morning Obama signed the tax cut legislation which included the spectrum provisions as a rider. During a 10-minute speech prior to the signing, he did not mention the spectrum provisions, but talked only about the economy and the effects of the tax cut. Standing behind him were ordinary citizens, not public safety officials. In the afternoon, Biden met with law enforcement officials, firefighters and public safety groups in-person and by conference call, and discussed the spectrum and wireless network provisions of the tax legislation. He also briefed them on a new report (pdf) from the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) that discusses the positive benefits of wireless broadband for public safety as well as jobs, growth, and investment. According to the White House, the report, “illustrates the economic impact of President Obama’s goal of doubling the amount of spectrum available for wireless broadcast over ten years, while adopting a nationwide inter operable wireless network.” Biden told the public safety officials, “I’ve been working on changing the way we allocate spectrum for a long time, because a smarter system is good for our economy, good for innovation, and vital to keeping our communities as well as our cops, firefighters and EMTs safe.” [click to continue…]

The London (UK) Ambulance Service has confirmed press reports that last October a computer glitch prevented some emergency 999 calls from ringing in to some calltakers, the result of the change from British Summer Time. According to the Health Service Journal (reg.), over 70 emergency calls were not answered during a 25-minute period on October 30th. Apparently they became invisible on-screen when the “fall back” fall time change was implemented. However, the technical staff were able to identify all of the missed 999 calls, and ambulance service officials said no life-threatening patients were affected. Read more about the incident here.

Acknowledging the increasing use of VoIP telephone services to make 911 emergency calls, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week established a requirement for providers to report certain network outages. Previously, only wired and wireless carriers have been required to provide outage reports that might affect 911 services. “The new rules will help ensure that the country’s critical communications infrastructure remains available in times of crisis,” the FCC said in a press release. Almost one-third of the nation’s 87 million residential telephone subscriptions are based on VoIP connections, the FCC noted, potentially resulting in 75 million calls to 911 each year. The commission noted several VoIP outages over the past two years, none required to be reported to the FCC. Both the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and National Emergency Number Association (NENA) applauded the FCC’s action. However, both also said they hoped the FCC would eventually extend the outage reporting requirements to broadband providers. APCO also said the FCC should take steps to provide real-time outage reports to affected public safety answering points (PSAP) so they could better handle 911 calls. The Report and Order approved by the FCC sets reporting criteria and thresholds, outlines the reporting process and what information to be reported, and and provides confidentiality for the report information. Download (pdf) a press release on the action here. Update: The FCC released the full Report & Order (pdf) on Feb. 21st. [click to continue…]

Congress Passes Epic Spectrum Bill

After years of lobbying by public safety groups, today the U.S. House and Senate approved legislation that will fulfill the spectrum needs to construct a nationwide wireless network that will support broadband voice and data. The bill also includes NG911 funding, a frequency band give-back, TV band auction provisions, and the creation of a spectrum governance agency. The spectrum provisions were tied to a tax bill that had become a major point of contention for both political parties, but which passed by a relatively wide margin. Most significantly, the bill  allocates the D Block of spectrum directly to public safety, a 20 MHz band that had originally been set for auction to a commercial enterprise in 2008. The bill also requires an auction of certain vacated television spectrum, with $7 billion of the auction proceeds going to fund a nationwide public safety wireless network. Legislators wanted spectrum in exchange for the D Block allocation, and after extensive negotiations, compromised with a give-back of the T-Band (470-512 MHz) being used by agencies in major metropolitan areas. The affected agencies would have 11 years to fully vacate the band under the new bill. But the give-back news sparked cries of “sell-out” from some agencies now using the T-band for large networks . Analysts said legislators originally wanted spectrum give-back from the 150-470 MHz band, then shifted to 420-470 MHz and to 700 MHz band, before landing on the T-band. In addition, T-band users say they should not be subject to the FCC’s current narrowbanding mandate, since the money spent will be wasted when the frequencies are given back. Because the original tax bill is high-profile, it should be signed by the President very quickly. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) applauded the Congressional action, and thanked its supporters from both political parties. Motorola also hailed the bill’s passage, but for economic reasons, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police also praised the action.
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