≡ Menu

Dialing 911 on the Pacific island territory of Guam works well technically, but there are several potential snags in how the calls are handled that could complicate an emergency response. A long article in the Pacific Daily News points out that there is no Phase II cellular service, so callers must know their location exactly. Fire and medical calls are immediately handled by one of the four 911 calltakers on-duty, but law enforcement calls are transferred across the room to a police calltaker. If that call is routine, the police calltaker handles it. But if it’s an emergency, the calltaker will transfer it to one of the island’s local precinct stations so the caller can speak directly to an officer. But at least one precinct has only a single telephone line—sometimes the police dispatcher must radio the station to hang up the phone so an emergency call can be transferred. The phone system at another precinct station plays a lengthy recorded message before the call is answered. Police acknowledge some inefficiencies in how telephone calls are answered, and the island’s government says they are working to improve the 911 network.

Allegheny County 911 dispatcher Shannon Basa-Sabol was the first witness Monday in the trial of a man accused of murdering three Pittsburgh (Penn.) police officers in 2009. She has been criticized for not relaying information to the radio dispatcher that there were guns in the house, and is the subject of two civil lawsuits for her handling of a 911 call. Richard Poplawski is accused of fatally shooting Officers Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo II when they entered his home in response to a phone call from his mother, who had dialed 911. During that phone call, Margaret Poplawski said her son was drunk the night before and she wanted him removed from the house. Basa-Soblo asked, “Does he have any weapons or anything?” and Margaret Poplawski said, “Yes, but they’re all legal.” Basa-Soblo then responds, “OK, but he’s not threatening you or anything?” Poplawski says, “He’s just waking up from sleep. I want him gone.” Basa-Soblo testified she then typed “No weapons” into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) record and entered it for dispatch. She explained because she’d been trained to note “No weapons” when none were involved and no one was being threatened. Other first-day witnesses included neighbors who saw what occurred and dialed 911. Basa-Soblo was part-time at the 911 center when the incident occurred but received re-training and now works full-time. Read more about the trial here, and listen to the mother’s 911 call here.

The Volusia County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office says that a resident properly dialed 911 to ask deputies to persuade his 79 year-old father from going up into a super-heated attic to perform chores, and that a dispatcher properly declined to send deputies to the man’s house. Two hours after the son’s mid-day call, the man collapsed inside the attic and had to be rescued by firefighters who cut a hole in the roof to extricate him. The man was taken to a hospital where he recovered. Sheriff’s spokesperson Gary Davidson said it isn’t up to law enforcement to convince someone not to do something that’s not illegal. He said an exception might be if the involved person had a psychiatric problem. Read more about the incident and the sheriff’s office reaction, and listen to the 911 call here.

Whether or not the West Palm Beach (Fla.) public safety radio system works properly is open for debate, as evidenced by the large number of people on both sides who claim they are right. West Palm Beach council members are scheduled to hear both sides today during discussions to approve a $1.6 million purchase of 400 radios that would move public safety radio operations to the Palm Beach County system. The county’s Motorola system went live in 2001 and has been successfully supporting 68 agencies. Meanwhile the city and five other jurisdictions have been using a Harris OpenSky radio system since 2006 that is arguably the subject of poor coverage, glitches and unintelligible speech. A 2010 negative evaluation of the OpenSky radio system was never made public, critics point out. Now West Palm Beach is considering a move to the county’s radio network to improve operations. Read more about the debate here, and listen to a very remarkable logging tape clip of the OpenSky radio that demonstrates the quality of audio on the system.

A series of miscommunications between a 911 caller, Dallas (Tex.) dispatchers and police officers ended with the caller firing two shots at officers who broke down his door believing that a gunshot victim was bleeding inside. Three officers were struck by bullet fragments after the round struck an officer’s assault rifle and ricocheted, but they were not seriously injured. Police arrested Steven Jones, 27, and charged him with assault. It started with a fight outside Jones’ apartment during which his cousin was shot. Jones dragged the cousin inside and dialed 911 for help. A neighbor came to Jones’ front door and knocked to make sure he was okay, and police arrived at that point and approached the door. Inside, Jones believed the knocking was by the people who had just shot his cousin, and he armed himself. Jones told the calltaker about the knocking, and the information was relayed to officer at the scene who, in turn, rightfully believed it was the neighbor knocking. Jones was afraid to open the door, and officers got no response when they knocked, so they broke down the door to rescue the gunshot victim. Jones then opened fire, but quickly surrendered when he realized it was the police. Read more about the call and incident here.

After a year of study, a national 911 group has formulated a draft set of guidelines to help local and states officials to assess the quality and effectiveness of state 911 systems. The 911 Resource Center has posted the 44-page draft that covers eight main topics, and is soliciting comments on how it might be improved or revised. The topics include statutory and regulatory environment, governance, standard guidelines, security, HR and training and public education. Standards under each topic define a minimum, advanced and superior criteria, along with a “rationale” and guidance. The 911 Resource Center is operated by consultant firm L.R. Kimball under agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, under the U.S. Department of Transportation, all part of the National 911 Program. Surf here to find a press release about the draft assessment guidelines, the guidelines themselves and a form to submit comments.

Officials on the user board for Portland’s (Ore.) Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) are reviewing a list of 436 complaints about the agency’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software that were collected in its first month of operation, including 76 considered “severe” or “high” priority. The new system by Versaterm was activated on April 17th and cost $14.5 million. It helps dispatchers handle incident and track units for 12 different agencies, including Portland police and fire. The list of complaints covers comm center operations, dispatcher training, the CAD software itself, and the mobile data system. It classifies 130 of the complaints as fixed, and categorizes the rest as either a software issue, configuration problem, related to dispatcher training, or related to a technology issue. The cause of at least 80 issues are still being identified, the report notes. Another 130 complaints were classified as being the way the system is supposed to work. Read more about the situation here.

Similar-sounding street names and the state of Maine’s consolidated 911 system are the focus of debate and criticism from local public safety officials after a delayed response to a murder-suicide in the town of Winslow June 6th. Officials say Sarah Gordon dialed 911 and gave her address as “4 Marie Street” in the southern portion of downtown. She said her husband was threatening her with a gun. However, the calltaker in the central 911 center in Augusta heard the street name pronounced differently—as “Murray Street,” which actually exists about three miles away by road. The calltaker notified the comm center in Waterville, who notified Winslow officers, who arrived at the wrong location about six minutes after the call. Neighbors then dialed 911 to report gunfire at the correct location, and officers arrived on Marie St. about 10 minutes after the original 911 call. They found Gordon dead and her husband on the run. He was later pursued by police, and fatally shot himself. Police chiefs in the state say the state’s consolidated 911 system requires too many transfers and creates the opportunity for mis-communications. Read more about the incident here.

A collection of Oakland (Calif.) area public safety comm centers are part of the debate surrounding the drowning death of a suicidal man on May 30th off the city of Alameda shoreline, while several police officers and firefighters stood by and watched for nearly an hour, since they weren’t currently certified to perform water rescues. The inactions of the first responders has sparked sharp criticism from the victim’s family and city residents, but fire officials say budget cutbacks made it necessary to cancel water rescue training, and that firefighters would have been at risk if they attempted to rescue the man. A Coast Guard boat that arrived was too big to reach the man in shallow water off the island city. Alameda fire officials initially said they requested boats from other jurisdictions. But those agencies produced logging tapes that revealed city police and Alameda County fire dispatchers had merely called to ask about the status of their boats, and never requested a response. Officials from Oakland, East Bay Parks, Alameda County and others say they would have responded if requested, although it’s not clear if their crews would have reached the man before he became unconscious in the water. A passerby eventually waded out to the unconscious man and pulled his body back to shore. Firefighters performed CPR but he did not survive. Read the story and listen to the logging tapes here.

With just four “No” Republican votes, yesterday a U.S. Senate committee approved a bill that would allocate the embattled D Block of spectrum directly to public safety, and now S. 911 goes to the full Senate for final approval, House approval and a possible Presidential signature. Congress originally ordered the 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz to be sold to the highest bidder in a Jan. 2008 auction. The winner would then create and operate a nationwide, interoperable public safety wireless network. However, the D Block failed to sell—only one $432 million bid was received for the spectrum, and the reserve price had been set at $1.3 billion. Since then there has been debate, controversy and recommendations to re-auction the spectrum. Finally, several legislators introduced bills that would take the D Block off the auction block and assign it directly to public safety. Today the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) issued congratulations to itself and the Public Safety Alliances for successfully lobbying the bill. APCO asked its members to write letters of thank-you to those who voted for the bill, and “to keep the pressure” on those who voted against the bill: Senators Olympia Snowe (ME-R), Jim DeMint (SC-R), Pat Toomey (PA-R) and Marco Rubio (FL-R). Read APCO’s statement after the break. [click to continue…]

A Bethlehem (NY) police dispatcher has served a 30-day unpaid suspension for threatening co-workers, and now those dispatchers say they’re fearful of what may happen when the dispatcher returns to work. The dispatchers anonymously contacted a local newspaper to say that Eric Kerr was also arrested in April for pointing a handgun at his girlfriend, but that charges were dropped when the girlfriend refused to testify. Kerr is the son of a Bethlehem police sergeant, and his mother is an officer at the department. A long story in the Spotlight newspaper details how the dispatchers refer to Kerr as “Teflon Kerr,” since he’s apparently able to get away with anything without discipline. One dispatcher told the newspaper, “He’s going to come back and he’s going to be angry,” said. He’s going to have a chip on his shoulder. A retired Bethlehem police officer has taken up the dispatchers’ cause and recently interrupted a press conference by a town official to publicize the situation. City officials say they’re aware of the dispatchers’ complaints but decline to comment further since it’s a personnel issue. Read more about Kerr’s past employment and the current situation here. Update: Bethlehem police officials have solved the problem of any future conflicts in the comm center by installing a video camera that also records audio. City officials say the police chief, the city human resources department and dispatchers reached an agreement on the installation, but would not say specifically why it was installed. Police union officials have criticized the camera. Read more about the camera here.

The 911CARES project has confirmed that dispatchers in four states have lost their homes and possessions during last month’s tornadoes, and that several dispatchers and their family members were injured in Missouri. The group has issued a request for assistance, asking the public safety dispatcher community to provide gift cards and other monetary donations. Kevin Willett, who administers the 911CARES program as part of his PSTC training company, says it took time to gather information from the various affected states and agencies, and he believes more dispatchers will come forward with losses in the coming weeks. “Please take up a collection within your center or decide to make a personal donation,” Willett asks. Surf the 911CARES Web site or read the latest activation information for how to help.

Quite simply, the difference between “Daniel Street” and “Daniel Avenue” in Atlanta (Geo.) may have proved fatal to a woman who was accidentally crushed in the demolition of a house. The 51 year-old homeless woman was inside a home slated for demolition when the work crew showed up and began work. When workers discovered the woman had been injured, they dialed 911 and correctly gave the street address of 68 Daniel Street. The unnamed male Atlanta 911 calltaker repeated the correct address. However, when emergency units were dispatched, they were sent to 68 Daniel Avenue, about five miles away. A second 911 caller nine minutes later said no emergency units had arrived, but both the 911 dispatcher and an EMS dispatcher assured the caller that units were enroute. Apparently neither re-confirmed the address with the caller. A few minutes later the 911 and EMS dispatchers conferred on the telephone and discovered the location mistake. An ambulance arrived 18 minutes after the first 911 call. The patient was transported but did not survive. Read more and listen to the 911 calls here.

An off-duty Franklin County (Virg.) sheriff’s deputy is accused of driving his patrol car into a gas station, shooting his ex-wife to death with a patrol rifle, shooting a pursuing state trooper, and then engaging two other troopers before being shot and arrested. But now that Jonathan Agee is in custody, attention—and criticism—has been re-focused on Franklin County sheriff Ewel Hunt, who personally handled notifying an involved police department to be on the look-out for Agree, rather than have dispatchers issue a state-wide alert. Hunt received a call from Agee’s father at 11:04 a.m. on Memorial Day alerting him that Jonathan was “agitated.” Hunt tried to call Dep. Agee, but left voicemail when he didn’t answer. At 11:12 a.m. dispatchers notified Hunt that Agee’s current wife called the comm center, saying Agee had left their house with guns, and said he was enroute to kill his ex-wife. At 11:18 a.m. Hunt called the Salem police asking to speak to a supervisor, and left his number. But Hunt never told the Salem dispatcher he had an urgent situation, nor did he give the dispatcher any information. At 11:31 a.m., a Salem patrol supervisor returned Hunt’s call, at about the same time that Agee was shooting his ex-wife in the city of Roanoke, about eight miles from Salem. Read more about the incident here, and about Hunt’s actions and his defense of how he handled the incident. [click to continue…]

A group of public safety associations has issued a second round of rebuttals on spectrum allocation, this time to “inaccuracies and misrepresentations” made during last week’s Congressional committee hearings on legislation affecting the D Block of frequencies. The Public Safety Alliance (PSA) says there is “a fundamental misunderstanding of public safety,” but did no say who or what group might be providing Congress with inaccurate information. “This is a complex issue,” the PSA said in a press release. “We have neither motive, nor reason to mislead Congress or acquire this spectrum and funding beyond doing our job of protecting the public as efficiently and effectively as possible.” The PSA includes the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), along with police, sheriffs, emergency management and EMS associations. The group is lobbying to pass federal legislation that would directly allocated the D Block of 800 MHz frequencies directly to public safety to build a nationwide, interoperable radio network. The PSA said, “To perpetuate the myths—or worse, try to rewrite history—is counterproductive and these continued delays will result in the same mistakes of the past that have gotten us here in the first place.” The PSA issued a press release Read the press release after the break. [click to continue…]