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The pressures to consolidate public safety communications center have been felt nationwide for several years, but since 2008 even more jurisdictions have been forced by budget deficits to consider giving up their center. This week a long list of city and counties have made decisions on consolidation, including “Yes” and “No.” In Dane County (Wisc.) a study panel has concluded that merging 911 and emergency management would compromise the current level of service, and result in only $30,000 a year in savings. However, local newspaper editorial says the panel should revisit the issue. Riverside County (S. Calif.) supervisors have approved a study of integrating sheriff’s, fire and EMS communications, which are now handled by separate centers. In Illinois, the Olney city council discussed a city-county communications merger at their Monday meeting, learning that it’s not supported by police officers. Some residents wondered if the sheriff wants to take over county-wide law enforcement duties. In Connecticut the state is moving forward with a plan to move two state police comm centers to a third, part of a state-wide consolidation trend for the state police. Lastly, Gulfport (Fla.) communications officer LaKeisha Issac was nearly in tears while telling the city council that the comm center is an irreplaceable and invaluable asset. She recalled a 3 year-old girl coming to the front counter to report her mother had been assaulted. “I held her hand and kept her calm,” Issac told the council. The center’s employees have 55 years of combined experience. The city is considering outsourcing dispatching to save money.

The city of Tucson (Ariz.) has upheld the firing of a 911 dispatcher for disclosing confidential information about the communications center, even while there are on-going warnings from dispatchers that a new telephone system has been dropping 911 and other calls, putting the public in danger. Mike LaFond went public with his criticism of the new telephone system installed May 25th, and then was fired in June. His allegations included examples of dropped calls, missing ANI/ALI information and delayed responses. In one case, he allegedly obtained information from computer-aided dispatch (CAD) records about a fatal EMS incident as an example of the problems. According to city officials, a 10 year-old girl suffered an asthma attack, a series of technical and human errors sent EMS units to the wrong address, and there was a delay in reaching the girl. They say LaFond was not authorized to access historical information from CAD, only current information. On Monday several other dispatchers went public with their criticism of the 911 telephone system at a press conference hosted by city council member Steve Kozachik. The dispatchers aid they had been told by supervisors not to talk to outsiders about the 911 system. Kozachik said that was in conflict with the dispatchers’ employee right. The dispatchers said they noticed problems during their training period, but supervisors never asked for their input or feedback, The old system was disconnected two weeks after the switch-over, so the the 911 operation had to push forward with the new, glitchy system. On Tuesday the city’s General Services Administration (GSA) upheld LaFond’s firing. On the same day, city officials announced that administration of the 911 center was being transferred from the GSA to the fire department, and claimed it was a long-planned change. Read a series of stories about the situation: dispatchers speak out, fire department takes over 911 center, city council reviews 911 problems, city council OKs more dispatchers.

The Los Angeles County (Calif.) Sheriff has requested the district attorney consider criminal charges after one of its stations was flooded with telephone calls last Friday from fans of rapper Game, who sent a Tweet from his cellular phone urging fans to call several telephone numbers to apply for a music internship. One of those phone numbers was a non-emergency number for the Compton sheriff’s station, which fields administrative phone calls for the district. Emergency calls are handled by a separate comm center and were not affected by the incident. In a press release, the LASO says it began receiving “hundreds” of phone calls at about 5:23 p.m. from some of Game’s 580,000 Twitter followers. The callers either hung up or asked about the music internship. “There were so many phone calls that all of the many phone lines were overwhelmed,” the press release said. “Delays in providing help included a missing person, a spousal assault, two robberies and a stolen car.” [click to continue…]

A fatal police-involved shooting in San Francisco by a transit district officer sparked public demonstrations last month, and has now brought threats by a computer hacker group to jam the district’s police radio system. The group Anonymous made the threats Sunday on its Twitter page, but did not say how they intended to jam the system. The Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) operates a conventional 800 MHz trunked radio network covering four counties, which is used by its police, track maintenance and operations departments. The EDACS system was originally installed by Ericsson GE (M/A-COMM, Harris Corp.) in April 2000. A BART police offer shot and killed a man officers say was armed with two knives on a station platform. A week later demonstrators mobbed an underground BART station downtown, and at one point tried to climb atop the trains stopped at the platform. When demonstrators threatened a return to the station last Thursday, BART police turned off the cellular telephone antennas at several stations to prevent demonstrators from coordinating their actions. BART operates the underground antenna system separate from those maintained by wireless carriers. Police explained that above-ground cellular service wasn’t affected, and that the shut-down did not create a safety hazard. Several groups have criticized the police cellular shut-down, saying it infringes on free speech rights and creates a safety hazard for passengers who might have an emergency. [click to continue…]

Just days after the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced how Next Generation 911 (NG911) will benefits to citizens, a pair of comm centers on opposite sides of the country are taking different views of the new technology. Julius Genachowski announced how the FCC intends to move to a nationwide 911 network during this week’s annual conference of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) in Philadelphia. His talk to the group included that NG911 would allow citizens to text message to emergency comm centers, and to send photo, videos and other media. Perhaps coincidentally, Durham (NC) began a test of 911 text messaging on Aug. 3 using Verizon Wireless. The city intends to test how well text messaging works, including speed of message delivery. However, at almost the same time, San Mateo County officials are hesitant to immediately rely on text messaging. Jaime Young, public safety communications director for the county told a reporter that he prefer to, “learn from others so we’re not on the leading edge.” Sheriff Greg Munks echoed those comments, saying text messaging might have long-term benefits, but added, “We have a ways to go before we can make the transition as an industry.” Read more of the San Mateo story here.

Almost two years after an intoxicated driver crashed into another car in Clark County (Nev.) and killed an 18 year-old woman, a former police dispatcher has come forward confirming the drunk driver responsible for the crash had consumed alcohol at the home of a school district police dispatcher. Former Clark County School District (CCSD) police dispatcher Peggy Higgins told a KLAS-TV reporter that she saw a flyer at the police department announcing the Nov. 2009, pre-Thanksgiving party, and that it was also promoted through CCSD email. Higgins told the reporter she was present at the party, in the home of CCSD police dispatcher Rebecca Wamsley. Higgins saw underage drinkers at the party, including Wamsley’s 17 year-old daughter, who was celebrating her birthday. Higgins alleges that other members of the CCSD police department, including officers and Wamsley, were at the party, and were aware of the underage drinkers. One of those drinkers, 18 year-old Kevin Miranda, left the party intoxicated (0.16%), according to a police investigation. He crashed into the car of Angela Peterson at an intersection, killing her. Miranda pled guilty to felony drunk driving, and last month was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison. In her interview with KLAS, Higgins claimed that in the days after the accident, comm center supervisor Mondo Quintanella specifically told her to lie about seeing the underage drinkers at the party. “We need to protect Rebecca,” Quintanella allegedly told Higgins. Higgins says she refused to lie, and was never interviewed by the CCSD police internal affairs investigators. Read more about the incident here.

When a Lorain County (Ohio) sheriff’s dispatcher answered the 911 line, she had no idea it would be a sheriff’s corrections officer confessing that he had just murdered his wife. Dispatcher Joy Sanchez fielded the call and kept William Dembie talking, called for an ambulance and notified deputies without breaking stride, despite the emotional nature of the incident. Dembie told Sanchez that he had “beheaded” his wife, although later deputies said that was untrue—she had been stabbed several times and was dead when they arrived. During a call to request an ambulance just seconds after hearing Dembie’s confession, Sanchez told the EMS dispatcher why she was breathing hard. “Sorry, it’s one of our COs. I know him personally,” Sanchez said. Read more about the incident here, and listen (mp3) to the 911 call here.

The chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today outlined a five-step action plan to improve the deployment of Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) service, seeming to emphasize its photos, text message and video capabilities, and limiting the FCC’s help in funding to the development of cost models. Julius Genachowski presented the plan at the annual conference of the Association of Public Safety Officials (APCO) in Philadelphia, saying the FCC will work with all involved stakeholders, “to ensure that effective emergency response is a critical element of the broadband environment.” In a statement later released by the FCC, Genachowski emphasized the need for a coordinated approach to NG911 planning to prevent “patchwork deployment” of the service. When explaining why NG911 is needed, he listed increased access by those with disabilities, enhanced information for first responders and increased network reliability. Genachowski’s numbered plan put accuracy location as #1, and put cost modeling—but not direct funding—as #5. Download (pdf) the FCC’s announcement here, and download (pdf) his prepared remarks to the APCO audience here.. [click to continue…]

A team of university researchers will present findings at a security conference today that claims Project 25 radio systems used by public safety agencies are susceptible to jamming by even simple radio devices. The same University of Pennsylvania security group made claims last year that Project 25 digital radios use an insecure communications protocol that can be easily hacked to allow interception of confidential law enforcement information. Their latest revelation is that a Mattel toy instant messaging device can jam a P25 radio, although they conceded that most criminals wouldn’t be able to master the techniques they used. However, they warned that it will only become easier to hack P25 radio networks. Read more about their latest claims here. Update: The researchers have posted the paper (pdf) they presented to the 2011Usenix Security Symposium in San Francisco.

A public safety radio scanner Web site has posted radio logging tapes that catch the fast-talking and quick-thinking San Diego (Calif.) police dispatcher who handled the shooting incident that claimed the life of an officer on Sunday. Off. Jeremy Henwood, 36, was shot and killed by a motorist who pulled up next to his patrol car stopped at a traffic signal. Police say the suspect may have been involved in an earlier shooting in Costa Mesa, about 100 miles north. Witnesses say the suspect and Henwood had no interaction before the shooting, and that the suspect drive off after firing his shotgun. The logging tape begins with an all-points broadcast about the suspect’s black Audi, and within minutes captures a citizen using Henwood’s radio to call for help. Officers converged on the scene, and within 30 minutes a police helicopter spotted the black Audi parked in a driveway several blocks away. As officers converged, the suspect got into the car with a shotgun and drove off. He was confronted by officers, shot and killed. Listen (mp3) to short clips of the tapes: the shooting, and the suspect capture. Listen to the entire one-hour tape.

A group representing police officers in Australia has submitted feedback on a legislative study of available spectrum for public safety agencies, urging the government to allocate 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for a broadband public safety network. The Police Federation of Australia (PFA) told a Senate committee that commercial wireless providers are unable to provide a secure, hardened and high-capacity network for public safety, and that spectrum in the 800 MHz band are mostly occupied in the country. The PFA also said there is little broadband gear for 800 MHz bands and that most other countries are moving to 700 MHz for their broadband networks. Download (pdf) the full PFA submission, and read more about the Senate inquiry into public safety spectrum here.

Even though the overall number of incidents dispatched to Milwaukee (Wisc.) police officers has declined over the past six years, response times to almost every incident category have increased, according to an extensive study by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper. The police department explains the longer response times as the result of a focus on pro-active policing, rather than on quickly responding to incidents. But the police officers union says that policy is counterproductive and is a disservice to citizens. The newspaper found that from 2005 to 2010, the number of armed robbery incidents decreased  by five percent, while the average response time increased 46 percent to 17 minutes 55 seconds. Radio dispatchers frequently broadcast “any available unit” for shootings, armed robberies and other Priority 1 incidents, the newspaper notes. Read the long main story here, a story about how the dispatchers are balancing units and incidents here, and an interactive graphic showing response times here.

For the next six months residents of Durham (NC) who are Verizon Wireless customers can text-message the city’s public safety dispatchers to report emergencies, but a press release announcing the trial project notes the messages won’t be free and there are several technical limitations. The test period was arranged with help from Intrado and is reportedly the second city to accept text messages to 911 after Blackhawk County (Iowa). James Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center, explains, “When asked to participate in this trial, we went into it as an opportunity to help folks who are hearing impaired and potential victims who can’t afford for someone to hear them make a 911 voice call.” The test will be a learning process for both text-ers and the involved agencies and companies, he added. The press release notes several points for text-ers to keep in mind, including, “Customers should use the texting option only when calling 911 is not an option,” and that it takes longer to text than to make a voice emergency call. “Picking up the phone and calling 911 is still the most efficient way to reach emergency help,” the press release notes. Providing a location “is imperative,” the release says, and abbreviations or slang should never be used. Text message can only be 160 characters long, and either count towards the Verizon customer’s monthly text message limit or are charged per-message. The release does not say that there is no automatic acknowledgement that a text message has been received by a dispatcher, and in fact may not be received at all because of wireless or network problems. Text message delivery can also be delayed during an exchange with a dispatcher, which also isn’t mentioned in the release. Download (pdf) the full press release here.

Police in Hartford (Conn.) now confirm that a dispatcher’s mistake led to police ending their investigation of a possible dead body inside a home last May, and it wasn’t discovered until two months later. Neighbors called police in late May when they noticed a strong odor and saw flies near the home, police say. The neighbors also reported that the elderly female resident had not been seen in weeks. Officers arrived to investigate, while a dispatcher searched the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) records for previous incidents. That dispatcher noticed a previous EMS incident at the home, when a female was taken to the hospital by an ambulance, and saw that it occurred the day before. Relying on that information, the officers ended their investigation and left. However, police now say the dispatcher misread the date—it was the date one day before, but two years earlier. Police say it was the current victim’s mother who had been transported to the hospital in 2009. Last Friday a gardener saw the body inside the home and called police again. The mayor of Hartford vows to investigate and take any necessary disciplinary action. Read more here.

A man who called the Wyckoff (NY) police department Saturday night told a dispatcher he had killed four people, was holding two hostages and demanded $10,000 in ransom and a police getaway car. However, after a heavy police response and tear gas fired into the home, police say the call was a hoax. Police say the residents were away and no one was jeopardized by the incident. The homeowner is a well-known media commentator who wrote a law enforcement investigator’s guide to on-line social media networks, which may have been the motive for the hoax. In previous incidents callers have used VoIP links to call police departments and report false emergencies, so-called SWATing incidents. Read more about the incident here.