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Up until last July, the city of Detroit (Mich.) Police Department arguably had one of the worst average response times in the nation—58 minutes. Now police chief James Craig is boasting that response times are down to just eight to nine minutes and that, “many shootings are handled in two or three minutes.” However, behind the spectacular improvement in response times is a redefinition of the term itself. It no longer measures the time from telephone call to officer arrival. Instead, Craig ordered that the term refer only to the time between an officer’s radio dispatch and his/her arrival on-scene. A majority of agencies use the wider definition of response time, although some large agencies have attempted to conceal declining service by redefining the term (NYC, LA). The response time information was part of Craig’s announcement this week that he’s replacing 15 of the communications center’s 100 police officers with civilians. “We need to put sworn officers in the field,” Craig said, admitting that his department is one of the few large agencies with officers staffing the comm center. Strangely, Craig said he eventually wants to change the current two-step dispatching system by having dispatchers both take 911 calls and dispatch incidents to officers. Read more about the changes here.

Declaring that the reliability of the nation’s 911 system is paramount, and acknowledging that past voluntary actions by 911 service carriers to improve reliability has been insufficient, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued rules to establish annual carrier certification, along with requirements for circuit diversity, battery backup, network monitoring and outage notifications to public safety answering points (PSAP). The commission was divided on the issue of how to improve 911 reliability, with dissenting commissioners saying the rules were too burdensome for carriers, and puts the FCC in the position of micromanaging the nation’s 911 systems. The new rules were sparked by widespread 911 network outages in the midwest and east from a derecho storm in June 2012. A January 2013 report (pdf) said 77 PSAPs lot some degree of 911 service during the storm, mostly from 911 service provider network problems. After proposing rules earlier this year and accepting comments, the FCC now requires 911 providers to annually certify they have adopted best practices to insure reliable 911 service. Service providers who do not provide sufficient proof of best practices will receive FCC scrutiny, and in “extreme cases” could be referred to the Enforcement Bureau “for further action as appropriate.” The best practices include providing multiple paths for 911-related circuits, eliminating any single points of failure. and auditing the circuits each year. Central offices with selective routers must have back-up power for at least 72 hours at full load, the FCC states. But the FCC estimates that 99 percent of selective router facilities already have back-up power. Lastly, 911 providers must perform network monitoring to quickly detect 911 outages, and must initially notify PSAPs about them within 30 minutes. Within two hours the provider must communicate additional details about the outage to PSAPs and estimated time for repairs. Download (pdf) the Report and Order to read about what proposals the FCC did not adopt, and the commissioners’ statements on the new rules for their specific objections to the new rules. NENA statement

In the space of four hours on Thursday, the Los Angeles Fire Department shut down its Twitter feed of incident information, announced it would no longer release incident records to the public or press—and then completely reversed itself. The actions came after a year-long newspaper investigation showed the LAFD wasn’t accurately tracking incident statistics, and that EMS response times have been increasing. The press scrutiny also raised questions whether department officials had been attempting to hide those declining EMS service levels with inaccurate statistics. The latest action began at 1:39 a.m. on Thursday morning when the fire department’s Twitter feed @LAFD sent a message, “This account is on temporary hiatus.” Later in the morning Battalion Chief Stephen Ruda explained, “We’ve been told by powers that be that if we provide that information we are in violation of federal law.” He was referring to the city attorney’s interpretation of the Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act (HIPAA), passed in 1996 to provide certain confidentiality of patient records. However, in general, it does not apply to governmental EMS operations or restrict routine dispatching procedures. The law makes no mention of confidentiality for EMS response times. After the morning announcement, the Los Angeles Times raised questions about the new policy, gaining the attention of LA mayor Eric Garcetti. By 3 p.m. the LAFD announced that it would release incident records, and that its Twitter feed would resume operations. Garcetti and fire chief Brian Cummings said they had been unaware of the fire department’s policy change, and that it had been based on a miscommunication. In a statement, Garcetti said, “Frankly, it’s ridiculous. We immediately told the department to fix this, and it’s being fixed. The Twitter account is going back online, and they’re going to be giving out the information they’re supposed to be giving out.” Download (pdf) the city auditor’s May 2012 report on EMS response times.

In the aftermath of several high-profile response delays by the New York City Fire Department, and questions about how response statistics are calculated, yesterday the city council passed legislation to formally defin “response time” and require monthly reports. The “Ariel Russo Emergency 9-1-1 Response Time Reporting Act” was named for a 4 year-old girl who died in a pedestrian accident last June. The family has sued the city both for the police chase before the accident and the alleged negligent operation of the city’s 911 system that led to an eight-minute response delay. Prior to the accident, the fire department reported response time statistics based simply on the dispatch-to-arrival travel time for fire or EMS units responding to the scene. Under the new legislation, the FDNY must now create response time reports that track, “the duration of time between a report to a 911 operator to which fire units or ambulances are required to respond and the time when the first fire unit…arrives on scene.” details

A former dispatcher has reached a milestone with his podcast devoted to public safety dispatching, and he is now looking to expand the discussion using Google Hangouts, which brings together participants via video. Ricardo Martinez says he’s taped 44 episodes of “Within the Trenches,” talking with dispatchers from the United States, Ireland, Australia and Canada about all aspects—good and bad—of the dispatching profession. Besides sparking discussion within the dispatching community, Martinez hopes the podcast also helps to inform ordinary citizens about the tasks dispatchers perform and what motivates them. “My co-host Whitney Wisner and I want to tell the stories of the unsung heroes of emergency services,” Martinez says, “With the show, we are able to do that as well as educate the public by showing them our side of the call.” Now, to help support his latest effort to expand the podcast to video, Martinez is looking for participants to share their experiences and perspectives on dispatching. Listen to the entire collection of podcasts here, and read about the future Google Hangouts project here. Anyone interested in being a guest on the show can email Martinez or Winer at wttpodcast@gmail.com. latest podcast episode

After an extended legal debate over privacy and decency, the city of Newtown (Conn.) has released the logging tapes for seven 911 calls made by staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School during the shooting that claimed 20 children and six teachers and staff. The calls are at once heart-wrenching and dramatic, as the callers plead for help with gunfire audible in the background, and dispatchers working to gather information and give the callers safety advice. Overall, the tapes confirm that the school staff and dispatchers worked professionally and diligently to expedite a public safety response to the shooting. “There’s still shooting going on, please!” custodian Rick Thorne said during his call to a Newtown police department dispatcher. During another call, an unnamed female caller told a dispatcher someone was running down the hallway. “Oh, they’re still running and still shooting. Sandy Hook School, please!” On one tape a Newtown dispatcher attempted to call the state police four times, but no one answered until the last call. Within days of the shooting last December the Associated Press filed requests for the logging tapes, but a state prosecutor denied the request since the investigation was on-going. The suspect killed himself, essentially ending any criminal investigation, so the AP later appealed the decision to the state’s Freedom of Information Commission. The commission ruled the city must release the tapes, but the state prosecutor continued to resist, saying it would violate the privacy of those wounded and the families of victims. Last week a state judge dismissed the prosecutor’s appeal to the commission’s ruling. Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott wrote, “Release of the audio recordings will also allow the public to consider and weigh what improvements, if any, should be made to law enforcement’s response to such incidents.” Earlier this week the prosecutor dropped his objections, and this morning the city released the tapes. The tapes of wireless 911 calls routed to the state police are still the subject of a court appeal. Listen to all six calls here, and read an early transcript (pdf) of the calls. [Warning—The audio is graphic and emotional, but is representative of the types of telephone calls that public safety dispatchers must and do handle frequently, and must be prepared to handle.]

Despite the widespread availability of 911 service in the United States, a just-issued report says a conspicuous lack of detailed data about 911 networks makes it difficult to manage and improve local systems, or to create a national 911 network. In a 24-page report, the National 911 Program office says no one knows precisely how many 911 calls are made, how many public safety answering points (PSAP) answer them, or how much it costs to operate 911 systems. Without that data, the report stays, “It is difficult to know where to focus resources to improve service.” Now the National 911 Office and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) have begun to tackle this absence of data, adding to the existing National 911 Profile Database and Wireless Deployment Profile maintained by the two groups. The 911 Office and NENA are also working to combine the two collections of data with other sources, and hope to create a more useful view of 911. They also hope to improve 911 data collection—not all states report 911 data to the federal office. Download (pdf) the entire report here for more statistics. deployment maps

An Ohio county prosecutor says he will not pursue criminal charges against a 911 dispatcher who snapped a photo of a driver’s license photo from a computer screen and texted it to a sheriff’s deputy, saying there was no criminal intent or conduct. However, officials of the Athens 911 Center investigated the incident, and Kimberly Hastings now faces a three-day, unpaid suspension for violating regulations that govern use of the state’s Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS). Hastings has appealed the suspension, and an arbitration hearing has been scheduled. According to the Athens County prosecutor Keller Blackburn, last May a sheriff’s deputy encountered a man whose identify could not be confirmed. Hastings allegedly ran the man’s name through LEADS from the comm center to obtain his driver’s license record, which included his photo. Hastings used her personal smartphone to take a picture of the driver’s license photo from the computer screen, and then texted it to the deputy. Blackburn said there was no proof of a second allegation a month later that Hastings texted a screen-shot of another LEADS screen to a family member. A second dispatcher at the Athens 911 center was given a one-day suspension for being aware of the first incident but failing to report it to a supervisor.

Two years after Arkansas police dispatcher Dawna Natzke was murdered, police in Colorado have arrested her then-boyfriend on a murder warrant, and intend to send him back for trial. Garland County officials issued the warrant for first-degree murder, saying they had used Duck’s cellular phone records to place him near the scene of Natzke’s car shortly before it was found on fire after her disappearance. The phone records also placed Duck near the location of Natzke’s body, which was found a week later in a national forest area, about five miles from the car’s location. Duck and Natzke attended a party on Dec. 22, 2011, and witnesses told police that Duck forced Natzke outside at about 11 p.m. and drove off with her. Natzke was never seen alive again. She was reported missing by co-workers when she failed to appears for a 6 a.m. shift one day later. Duck had been a person of interest all along, but no physical evidence linked him to the crime until cellular phone records were analyzed by an FBI expert. Natzke, 46, had been a dispatcher for the Hot Springs Village police department for seven years, and left behind two sons.

A Connecticut judge today ordered the release of 911 call logging tapes made during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, saying arguments to keep them confidential bordered on “frivolous.” A state public records commission had previously voted to make the tapes public in response to a request from the Associated Press, but a state prosecutor argued they should remain confidential. State’s attorney Matt Sedensky argued that releasing the calls would violate the privacy of the victims’ families. Sedensky also claimed the calls were “witness statements” and were protected from release because the investigation was on-going. The 911 calls include those made by teachers and staff last December from inside the school during the incident, which included the murder of 20 students and six teachers. The suspect killed himself just as police officers arrived at the school. Superior Court Judge Eliot D. Prescott listened to the logging tapes on Monday, and today denied a motion to stay the Freedom of Information Commission’s ruling to release the tapes. The commission ruled against prosecutors who claimed the 911 tapes were not releasable under certain state exemptions for calls pertaining to “child abuse.” The judge wrote, “The court recognizes and is deeply sensitive to the fact that the families and friends of those who died in this tragedy, as well as others in the greater Newtown community, may desire that the 911 audio recordings never be released.” But he added, “Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials.” Download (pdf) the entire judge’s ruling for details on the decision.

A state-authored investigation into the tragic shooting at Sandyhook Elementary School (Conn.) in Dec. 2012 could not determine the suspect’s motive for killing 20 children and six teachers with an assault rifle, but it does provide a more accurate timeline of the incident. The 282-page report was released today, at nearly the same time a Superior Court judge was considering a final appeal to keep 911 call recordings related to the case confidential. A state public records panel has recommended release of the tapes in response to a public records request by the Associated Press. The judge could make his decision by next week. Today’s report was authored by a state’s attorney Stephen Sedensky, and said the first 911 call from an school office staff member was received at the Newtown police department comm center at 09:35:39. A NPD dispatcher first told officers at the station about the incident at 09:36:06 Officers left the police station immediately, and the dispatcher then made the first radio broadcast at 09:36:06. The first officer arrived at the school at 09:39:00. The shooting was over and the suspect killed himself at about 09:40:03, the report states. It was 09:44:47 when the first officer entered the school. [click to continue…]

During a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) workshop on Monday about 911 Phase II locating, the audience heard that the percentage of wireless calls is steadily increasing, fewer Phase II calls are being received, but also industry claims that there are solutions for improving location accuracy. The workshop spotlighted growing complaints by state 911 agencies that wireless carriers are providing fewer Phase II locations for 911 calls, degrading the accuracy of the caller’s location. In California, for example, state figures show Phase II service has dropped from 59.3% to just 43.3% since 2010. The workshop included participants from California’s Office of Emergency Services, which handles 911 services, along with Spring, T-Mobile, Intrado and several wireless location technology companies. In one presentation by NextNav LLC, the company said that the challenges to implementing improved location accuracy “are minor,” compared to when Phase II rules were originally rolled out. The tech companies specifically said that improved indoor location accuracy for 911 calls was feasible. Polaris Wireless said in its presentation that, “There are no technological or monetary barriers to achieving the location accuracy and yield requirements in the Commission’s Phase II E911 location mandate.” Check the workshop’s Web page for video for the workshop and participant presentations in Acrobat (pdf) format. Read about the workshop discussion on declining 911 call location accuracy. charts

After publishing the results of a landmark study of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among public safety dispatchers, a university professor is now looking for additional participants for health and wellness research. Dr. Michelle Lilly, Ph.D. is looking for both dispatcher trainees in their first four months of work, and dispatchers with at least one year of experience. Lilly is an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, specializing in clinical psychology, and is gathering data to determine factors that put dispatchers at risk for job attrition and low job satisfaction. “We are hopeful that this information can be used to directly inform prevention, training, and hiring practices,” Lilly says. Participation is completely anonymous, Lilly emphasizes, and consists of a set of periodic surveys. Read the full project description after the break, along with contact information if you’d like to participate. research details

A Volusia County (Fla.) sheriff’s dispatcher who was suspended for mis-supervising a trainee has now been arrested for pointing a handgun at a reporter who came to her home for an interview. Shauna Justice, 28, admitted the incident to deputies who responded to a call from a WESH-TV reporter, and was booked on $1,500 bail. The reporter said Justice pointed the gun from behind a screen door, and when she retreated, Justice came outside and followed her down the front walkway with the gun still pointed at her. Deputies said the 9mm pistol had 11 bullets in the magazine, but no round was in the chamber. At the time, Justice was on unpaid suspension during an investigation into how her trainee handled a 911 reporting a man with a possible heart attack. The 51 year-old man died after the trainee entered the wrong address for the handball court where he was. The caller correctly gave the cross-streets of the recreation center, but mis-identified the name of the rec center. Instead of entering the cross-streets, the trainee looked up the address of the rec center using the name—the incorrect name. At the time of the 911 call, interior comm center surveillance video allegedly shows Justice looking at her cellular phone, and was not watching the trainee enter the 911 information. Arriving EMS units did not find the man, and there was a 10-minute delay in reaching him. Justice is a six-year veteran of the comm center. Read more about the original EMS incident here, and Justice’s arrest here. The sheriff posted a press release about the arrest. video

Since the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) spotlighted the increasingly poor performance of the state’s 911 system to locate cellular 9-1-1 callers, other states have contributed call data that doesn’t necessarily confirm the trend. All the states’ data shows that the number of 911 calls has been steadily increasing, but in some states the percentage of Phase II call location data is remaining about the same, not declining. In other states, including Texas, the percentage of Phase II calls has fallen dramatically starting in mid-2011. The CAL-NENA chapter raised the issue of poor 911 call location reporting by cellular carriers last August, noting that AT&T’s Phase II performance had fallen from 92% in Jan. 2008 to just 31% by Dec. 2012. The chapter presented its findings to the state’s 911 agency hoping to discover why the decline is occurring—operational or technical. They also alerted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the trend. Some in the industry feel that the decline is related to an increasing number of 911 calls made by people inside buildings or other structures. There is also some speculation that carrier network hardware or software upgrades may have caused changes in location reporting accuracy. Check the three state 911 location statistics after the break. [click to continue…]