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A California appeals court has denied a request by a former California Highway Patrol (CHP) comm center supervisor to be removed from a civil lawsuit alleging he emailed grisly evidence photos of an accident victim to other people, eventually reaching the victim’s family. Nicole Catsouras, 18, crashed her parents Porsche into a toll booth at high speed and was killed in Oct. 2006. Catsouras’ family filed a lawsuit against the CHP and Aaron Reich. The agency investigated the incident and took photos of the scene, including of Catsouras’ body. Reich admits to obtaining the photos through official channels and emailing them to family and friends, but contends the emails included a warning about the dangers of drunk driving. Therefore, Reich’s attorney argued, his client’s distribution of the photos was protected “free speech.” Reich later erased all the emails at the direction of his CHP superiors. A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal pointed out that Reich failed to present any of the emails for the court’s evaluation. Therefore, the court ruled, it could not rule if the emails were protected under certain sections of the state’s Civil Code. The court left open the possibility of someone finding and presenting the emails for future court review. Absent that, the civil case against Reich and former supervisor Thomas O’Donnell now goes back to a lower court for trial. Download the appeals court decision here, and a 2010 appeal here. Read more about the decision here.

A boy injured by a camel at the Knoxville (Tenn.) zoo had to wait for medical treatment after miscommunications kept fire and EMS units stalled at the front gate while zoo officials investigated if the camel was loose. The incident, and past incidents at other zoos, highlight the need for close cooperation between zoo personnel and local emergency services to insure safety and a prompt response. In this case the 400-pound camel stumbled in its enclosure, fell over the fence and accidentally struck a child. A woman dialed 911 to report the injury and stated that the camel was loose. She also described the encounter as an “attack,” and that information was relayed by dispatchers. The caller wasn’t kept on the line or closely questioned about the circumstances of the contact or the status of the camel. The caller wasn’t identified and it’s not clear if she notified zoo employees on-scene. Zoo officials say they weren’t aware of the incident until EMS units arrived, and kept the front gate locked for safety. Read more and listen to the 911 call and radio traffic here.

Fire officials in Honolulu (Hi.) say a veteran dispatcher’s profane remark to a 911 caller is unacceptable, but have not said if he will be disciplined. The caller was reporting a horrific explosion and fire inside an underground storage bunker where federal officials had stored confiscated fireworks. Five contract workers died when the fireworks ignited as they were destroying them, apparently by submerging them in diesel fuel. The dispatcher asked the caller several times what was burning, and apparently did not understand that an explosion had occurred. “Don’t you hear it, oh my God,” the caller said. The dispatcher replied, “Okay, I cannot hear fire sir calm down. Calm down sir let me help you you’re not making it any easier.” The caller then said in audible frustration, “I can’t believe this is (expletive) happening to me! Oh my God! Oh my God!” The dispatcher then said, “What a (expletive) idiot.” Fire Capt. Terry Seelig said the dispatcher,” is very upset at himself and how this was done.” Read more of the call transcript here.

The town of Selma (Calif.) is entangled in the aftermath of a fatal fire, trying to reconstruct a timeline of how its police and fire departments responded to the incident, and what role the state’s CAL FIRE agency might have played in a delayed response. City officials say transients living in a vacant house started a fire, and that three persons were trapped inside. A 911 from an occupant went to Selma PD, who contacted CAL FIRE, who then dispatched fire units. The caller mentioned that people were trapped in the house. Since the house was within feet of the city line, CAL FIRE requested Selma FD to respond. But when the police dispatcher contacted the fire captain on duty, he/she didn’t mention trapped people, only that CAL FIRE had requested assistance. At the time, the Selma FD ambulance was out of service, limiting the engine staffing. So the fire captain declined to respond with only one person on the engine. The fire captain now says he would have responded had he known people were trapped. City officials say the police dispatcher is not currently the subject of discipline. Read the story and a timeline here.

A Lexington-Fayette (Ken.) 911 dispatcher has filed a lawsuit in state court alleging the agency gave her poor performance reviews in retaliation for her complaints about faulty computer equipment that she claims put police officers in jeopardy. Amy Ross says she made formal complaints about the equipment over three years, and even offered help fund equipment replacements through car washes or other fund-raising events. But the agency refused to repair the gear and, Ross’ lawsuit claims, and was given poor evaluations for “refusing” 911 calls during her shift. The agency uses a automatic call distribution system (ACD) to handling incoming calls, and dispatchers must log in to begin receiving calls. Calls that are “refused” roll over to another calltaker. Ross says she was always prepared to answer 911 calls, but that the faulty equipment prevented calls from being routed to her. The lawsuit also claims that the 911 call audit on which her evaluations was based came from a firm listed in “bad standing” with the state. Read more about the situation here, and download (pdf) her lawsuit here. Update: Two weeks later a second dispatcher filed a similar lawsuit alleging retaliation.

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.