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An investigation into the handling of a toxic gas release at a metal casting company in Clackamas County (Ore.) earlier this month determined there was confusion over how to activate the county’s community notification system, and that surrounding neighbors were never instructed to shelter in place. According a report issued last week, a Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) supervisor was unaware the county changed notification systems last October, as well as the contact person to activate the system. Several agencies were involved in handling the incident near the city-county border, which also complicated inter-agency communications. In fact, the first notification request went from Clackamas Fire to Clackamas County Communications, and then to BOEC. The unnamed BOEC supervisor then contacted Portland police to activate the alert, and they notified the Multnomah County emergency manager—who called back the Clackamas Comm supervisor. Oddly, during that conversation, neither person asked about activating the system. Download (pdf) the incident report here and read more of the complicated event.

The Pima County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Office is releasing little information about the fatal shooting of man during a SWAT raid, but the logging tape of a 911 call for medical help from the victim’s wife shows dispatchers were confused about whether the scene was secure for medics. Deputies served a search warrant and, according to an attorney representing the SWAT deputies, saw Jose Guerena at the end of a hallway with a long-rifle and opened fire—he was hit 60 times out of 71 shots fired. Guerena’s wife Vanessa said he was sleeping, heard noises, and believed intruders were outside the house, and so armed himself. Vanessa dialed 911 in terror after the shooting and asked for an ambulance. But dispatchers took several minutes to confirm that her address was among several that were being searched by SWAT officers. Also, the deputies’ attorney said his clients believed the house was not secure, and so didn’t clear medics to come to the scene to treat Jose Guerena. Read the full story here, and listen to the 911 call here.

An Ohio legislator has introduced a bill to require minimum training for public safety dispatchers, in the wake of a fatal drowning incident that raised questions about whether the handling dispatcher gave the victim proper survival instructions. Currently the state has no standards or funding for dispatcher training. House Bill 223 would require the state to establish a curriculum of 40 to 60 hours based on standards from Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), and to create a state emergency dispatcher training fund to pay for individual dispatchers to attend. The requirement would become effective within one year of the bill”s passage. The bill was sparked by the fatal drowning of a motorist last February. Lisa Roswell’s car was swept off a highway and spoke to a Norwalk police dispatcher. However, the agency’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) protocol system for handling incidents was an older version that did not include “submerged vehicle” instructions. The dispatcher told Roswell to remain in the car, which is currently not generally-accepted advice. Norwalk police chief Dave Light has defended the dispatcher, saying it’s not clear Roswell would have survived had she escaped the car. Download (pdf) a copy of HB 223 as introduced here., and read more about the bill here.

A miscommunication between a 911 caller and a York County (Penn.) dispatcher in training led to an eight-minute response delay, and resulted in three row homes being destroyed by fire. Fire officials believe the fire could have been confined to the kitchen of the original caller if her call had been promptly handled, and if the calltaker had correctly verified the woman’s address. Instead, Gloria Diaz properly gave her address as “622 Wallace Street” in York. But the unnamed dispatcher believed she said, “622 Water St.,” which is in Wrightsville. The calltaker asked Diaz if she lived in York City or York Township, and Diaz only answered only, “Yes.” After other questions, the calltaker asked Diaz if she lived in Wrightsville, and she said, “Yes.” Fire units were then dispatched to the Wrightsville location. Within two minutes neighbors pulled a fire alarm box outside the actual location of the fire, and fire units were then dispatched to the correct Wallace St. address. County officials said Diaz was using an older cellular phone, so there was no location information displayed to the calltaker. Read more about the mix-up here.

Subscribers to the Ooma Internet-based telephone service can now receive email notifications whenever someone dials 911 from their telephone. The service announced Tuesday is available with the company’s top-tier VoIP service, or as part of a $9.99 service add-on for other customers. The service is likely to generate phone calls to local comm centers from the notified people—anywhere on the planet—asking for an emergency response to their home. That process could be confusing and tedious for 911 calltakers. Up to three email addresses can be designated for the notification service, the company says. Ooma sells the $249 Telo device that connects phones to its VoIP network, and a monthly service that includes voicemail, on-line call logs, voicemail-to-text conversions, intelligent forwarding, conferencing and more.

When you’re steering a city as enormous and unwieldy as New York, you need to know every bump in the road. Perhaps more than the 911 emergency number, NYC’s sophisticated 3-1-1 call center collects relevant, real-time information, alerting city agencies of traffic hazards, sewer line breaks, illegal taxis, building permit violations and a host of other problems, all before the issues fester and become worse. The 311 system has also become the go-to, can-do agency for the city’s 8.3 million residents, providing a place to report problems and follow up on the fix, and to obtain information on thousands of topics. A story in Wired magazine now explains how the enormous amount of data collected by the 311 call center is being used by the city to handle immediate problems, but also to improve future operations. The lessons learned by handling 50,000 calls to 311 each day can be instructive to 911 centers in other cities, especially that groups of even vague calls can provide valuable information. In one example, New York City officials used hundreds of calling reporting a strange odor to pinpoint a factory in New Jersey—fielded and answered separately, no one would have been able to trace the source to a maple syrup manufacturer.

A former Western Washington University police dispatcher has reached a settlement in her civil lawsuit agency her employer alleging she was improperly fired in 2007 for complaining about her co-workers misconduct. Shannon O’Dwyer, 40, worked at the Honolulu (Hi.) police department before joining the university’s police department. In her lawsuit filed in 2009, O’Dwyer said other dispatchers made remarks that the university hired minorities only to fulfill quotas, claimed a female employee kept her job only because she performed sexual favors, and that an African-American was promoted only because of his race. A fellow dispatcher once called out a female dispatcher, saying she dressed like a “Mexican prostitute.” O’Dwyer reported the conduct, but the university took no action, she said in the lawsuit. Within weeks they fired her, just four months into her probationary period. Now the university has agreed to settle the lawsuit for $135,000, but still denies any wrongdoing. Read more about the lawsuit and the settlement here.

Amid much publicity and while standing at the World Trade Center in New York City, a group of politicians, FCC officials and cellular executives announced the first implementation of a national alerting system intended to warn citizens of imminent threats to their safety. The free Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) network will allow a hierarchy of officials, from the President to local emergency directors, to send messages to mobile devices within a specifically-defined geographic area. New York City will turn on their opt-in network by the end of 2011, and other parts of the country could be covered by mid-2012. Mobile device users will be able to opt out of local and state alert messages, but will not be able to block Presidential-level messages. The network will operate in addition to the existing Emergency Alert System (EAS) that connects emergency officials and the nation’s commercial radio and TV stations. Only cellular handsets with a special chip and software will be capable of receiving the alerts. Download (pdf) an FCC press release and an information paper. Watch a video after the break. [click to continue…]

After more than a year of delay, five New Orleans (La.) dispatchers have been disciplined for sleeping on the job with letters of reprimand. One of the dispatchers had also been accused of lying to investigators when confronted about sleeping, but was not fired for that infraction. According to police officials, the lying occurred before the department’s “you lie, you die” policy was put in place in Sept. 2010. The discipline comes in the aftermath of an extensive outside investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, and a recent study (pdf) of the Orleans Parish 9-1-1 District answer times increased dramatically during 2010 as the number of dispatchers were laid off, and as others quit because of mandatory furlough days. The agency went from 65 employees in April to just 34 in December, while 10-second answer times went from 98% to 89%. [click to continue…]

An Iowa state administrative law judge has ruled that a former Cedar County sheriff’s dispatcher was properly fired for misconduct and should not receive unemployment benefits. Amy Willey, 29, was fired last year for inappropriate and sexually suggestive behavior. According to sheriff Warren Wethington, while on-duty over a two-year span, Willey made sexual comments regarding her breasts and other parts of her anatomy, telephoned a police officer to ask whether his penis was pierced, discussed sex toys, and grabbed her buttocks and breasts while at work. In the transcript of two telephone calls presented to a Workforce Development hearing judge, Willey gossiped with a city police officer and used profanities on a recorded line. When contacted by a newspaper reporter for comment, Willey claimed other dispatchers slept on-duty but were never fired. She also alleged the sheriff’s department would annually honor dispatchers who handled the most number of fatality incidents. Read more about her firing here.

Next week a new book will go on sale documenting, “The Lies of Sarah Palin,” including allegedly false statements she made in 1996 on an application for the job of Palmer (Ak.) police dispatcher. Author Geoffrey Dunn obtained the application paperwork during research for the book, which began in 2008, and wonders in the book why local journalists didn’t uncover it during the presidential campaign. Palmer is a town of about 8,500 residents about 20 minutes east of Palin’s home town of Wasilla. The application is ironic, since also during 1996 Palin was elected mayor of Wasilla and within months fired the city’s police chief. Iri Stambaugh later sued Palin over being fired without cause. He alleged Palin fired him because he opposed certain gun and bar legislation that Palin’s supporters were trying to pass through the state legislature and Wasilla city council. A judge later found for Palin in the lawsuit. Dunn’s book goes on sale May 10th.

An official investigation into the 2005 terrorist attacks against London’s public transport system found that control centers were quickly overwhelmed by telephone calls and radio traffic, and recommended the use of plain English, not only on the radio, but in face-to-face conversations among public safety personnel. A team of suicide bombers set off explosions on a London double-decker bus and in three underground train tunnels, killing 56 people and injuring 700. In a 65-page report, a London coroner said control centers fielded calls from both citizens and each other, tying up phone lines. At the London Ambulance Service, a single dispatcher was assigned to handle two radio channels for all four of the bombing incidents, slowing responses. The underground explosions damaged radio train equipment, forcing operators to use their cellular phones to call for help. The Metropolitan Police radio network did not work beyond the stations, and other agencies had no underground coverage at all. The coroner also determined that the region’s emergency services didn’t sufficiently train together, failed to quickly mobilize for a major incident, and that the CAD geofile didn’t properly locate underground train stations. Many of the named agencies have already implemented improvements in their operations. Download (pdf) the coroner’s report—the control center issues are discussed starting with paragraph #121 and communications starting at #156 and #186.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently issued waivers for two public safety agencies, allowing them to use paging frequencies for two-way voice communications. But the commission also warned that 700 MHz frequencies freed up by the digital television (DTV) transition must be considered “available,” even by agency’s who submitted their request before the transition. In separate rulings, the FCC denied Marin County (CA) and Garden City Park’s (NY) requests to use certain frequencies in the 480 MHz band, so-called “Part 22″ frequencies, under the usual conditions for granting a waiver. However, on its own initiative the commission reconsidered the requests using other FCC rules, and granted the requests. [click to continue…]

A tornado with 140 mph winds swept through Haleyville (Ala.) on April 27th, site the nation’s first 911 call, injuring at least 10 people and damaging or destroying scores of buildings. The National Weather service said the tornado struck at about 5:10 p.m. southwest of the city, and continued almost 32 miles northeast, damaging property in a three-quarter mile path. The tornado was among 14 in the region, and part of 100 tornadoes that broke out on a single day. At least 356 people were killed and several thousand were injured by the storms. Officials said the tornado continued past Haleyville and into the Tennessee Valley, where it damaged other communities. View a tornado map after the break. [click to continue…]

The roll-over vehicle accident that claimed the life of New Haven (Conn.) dispatcher on Interstate 91 last October was a mystery to investigators at the time. Jennifer Countermash’s vehicle swerved into the center divider, flipped over and she was ejected. She died at the scene, and there was no explanation for why it occurred. But now a claim filed with the city of New Haven by her ex-husband makes a startling accusation: an on-duty New Haven police officer had been chasing Countermash before the accident, “intimidating, following and/or harassing (her),” the claim states. The husband alleges that the officer’s speeding, text messages and other distractions caused Countermash to lose control of her car and crash. He also claims that the officer “pushed and/or bumped” Countermash’s vehicle, causing it to spin out of control. The state police are reportedly investigating the accident, but a spokesperson said he wasn’t immediately familiar with the case. The claim is a legal formality before filing a civil lawsuit against the city. Read more about the claim here.