≡ Menu

The Rock County (Wisc.) Communications Center is working to reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls it receives every year—about 34 percent of the total 70,000 annual calls. With the assistance of a local musician they have produced an public education music video that promotes the use of its non-emergency telephone number for barking dogs, parking violations and other situations. Read more about the video here.

In the wake of a New York state incident of malicious jamming of a fire department radio channel, a member of Congress is now proposing a bill that would criminalize such acts with severe penalties. Under current law, intentionally interfering with radio communications results in only a civil penalty, with fines up to $16,000 a day. U.S. Rep. Peter King (R) announced Monday that his legislation would make public safety radio interference a federal felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. King was motivated by an incident last year during which someone transmitted on the T-band radio channel for the Melville Fire Department. The transmissions included words and chanting, officials said. After 10 months, police made an arrest with the help of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). King has not formally introduced the legislation in Congress.

The Connecticut Supreme Court has reversed a $12 million verdict against the town of Clinton, saying one of its dispatchers didn’t realize a 911 caller was pursuing a hit-and-run suspect at high speeds, and so was not liable under state law when the suspect struck a tree and was seriously injured. The conservator of Walker Hopkins sued the city in 2005, claiming that dispatcher Ellen Vece should have instructed the 911 caller to stop chasing Hopkins, who had struck the caller’s vehicle, causing some damage. The plaintiff said Vece should have foreseen the potential danger in allowing the 911 caller to continue following the suspect vehicle. If true, the town would be liable under the “identifiable person–imminent harm” exception in the state’s governmental immunity law. A local court agreed with the conservator’s claims and awarded her substantial damages for Hopkins’ continuing care. However, the Supreme Court disagreed that Vece could have foreseen the danger, and reversed the lower court’s decision. details

As part of a wider review of the city’s response to emergency medical incidents, a private consultant has recommended that the Los Angeles fire and police computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems be merged into single system, and that 198 fire department positions be civilianized, including firefighter dispatchers in the communications center. The consultants also recommended variable staffing based on prior analysis of time-of-day and location data for EMS incidents. The consulting company, PA Consulting Group, has been looking at ways to improve the deployment of fire department resources, and in this review focused on EMS operations. In their 85-page report, the consultants mentioned the department culture hasn’t changed over the past 30 years as fire hazards have decreased and medical incidents have increased. The department is too dependent upon sworn personnel, “even where a civilian with the required technical skills would be more effective.” Perhaps most significantly, the department is “almost entirely a reactive organization,” without a strategic direction or plan. details

The Los Angeles (Calif.) Fire Department is in breach of its contract to use emergency medical dispatching (EMD) protocols, according to the company who created them, and must stop using them within 60 days. That thorny situation was presented to the department in a hand-delivered letter Monday from Dr. Jeff Clawson representing Priority Dispatch. It culminates a years-long newspaper investigation into slow responses to medical emergencies in the city, and criticism of the EMD protocols by fire department officials earlier this year. Last month the fire department announced it would begin devising its own set of EMD protocols to improve upon the Priority Dispatch set. In the face of that criticism, Clawson defended the protocols, which grew from the originals he created at the Salt Lake City Fire Department in the 1970s. He also criticized the LAFD for misusing the protocols and creating “a threat to the health, safety and welfare of every man, woman and child in the City. ” Now, Clawson has taken the next step, invoking the company’s right to cancel the its contract with the city over “misuse” and an “Unsafe Practice.” Specifically, Clawson claimed in his letter, dispatchers are, “not using the protocols appropriately, misapplying the protocols, or not using them at all.” The letter also clearly indicates he is upset with “untruthful” statements by city officials that blame the protocols, instead of “dispatch errors by firefighter/calltakers who are not complying with the MPDS protocols.” Clawson said the company has the right to revoke the EMD license immediately, but was allowing the fire department 60 days in order to safely transition to alternate protocols. Read more about the situation here, and download (pdf) Clawson’s letter to the LAFD.

An Illinois legislator is hoping to fill a gap in state law that now allows employees of law enforcement agencies, including dispatchers, to tip off people about a criminal investigation and yet not be criminally prosecuted. The proposed law was introduced by state senator David Koehler in January, and was specifically focused on public safety dispatchers who might contact friend, relatives or others, and give them confidential information about an criminal investigation. A 2020 Illinois Supreme Court case highlighted the law gap when it overturned the conviction of a Glenwood police dispatcher who allegedly tipped off her boyfriend about a drug investigation. Under Koehler’s proposed bill, it would be a crime to communicate information acquired during employment, “to obstruct, impeded, or prevent the investigation, apprehension or prosecution” of any offense or person. The bill was passed by the Senate yesterday, and now moves to a rules committee before being considered by the House. Download (pdf) the current version of the bill here.

An investigative report by the Washington (DC) mayor’s office has revealed that both firefighters and dispatchers made multiple mistakes, leading to a delayed response that ended with the death of a man who suffered a cardiac incident. The 13-page report by Dep. Mayor Paul Quander Jr. says four dispatchers from the district’s Office of Unified Communications have been recommended for discipline, and five firefighters also face discipline. Last month Medric Mills, 77, collapsed at a business across from a district firehouse. Citizens went to the station and notified the firefighters, but for several reasons they did not respond to the incident. When a business owner dialed 911, a OUC calltaker mistakenly entered the location as Rhode Island Avenue NW, when it was actually located in the northeast (NE) quadrant of the city, a difference of almost three miles (street explanation). The 911 caller almost immediately corrected the calltaker, who updated the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) incident with the correct location. However, by then the EMS radio dispatcher had already dispatched the incident to field units, and then failed to notice the location update. A police dispatcher did notice the update and properly dispatched officers to the incident. EMS units arrived 9½ minutes after the 911 call was made. The report recommended several changes in the OUC dispatching procedures, including verifying locations on the radio and requiring a read-back, revising CAD displays of incident updates, and checking the status of responding units on the radio. Download (pdf) the full investigative report here.

Two suburban Indianapolis (Ind.) police departments received telephone calls from people claiming they held hostages or had shot people, triggering a large law enforcement response to residences, but which turned out to be hoaxes. At least one of the separate SWATing incidents was later linked to computer gaming, police said. No one was hurt in either incident, but police pointed out the potential dangers of the police response and vowed to track down whoever made the calls. The first call sent Zionsville police to a house where the caller told a dispatcher he had five hostages, an AK-47 and explosives, and that he wanted $100,000. Arriving officers heard loud reports—later determined to be fireworks—which ramped up the tension. When a dispatcher called the home, the occupants refused to come out, fearing it was the people who had been calling and harassing them. After the residents dialed 911, they came outside and police determined the hoax. In the second incident in the town of Carmel, someone dialed a TTY relay service and relayed that she had killed her husband and son, and shot her daughter with a shotgun. She vowed to shoot any officer who came to the house. Police arrived, evacuated the house and learned of the hoax. Read more about the incidents and listen to the 911 calls here.

Ironically, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—chaired by a former wireless industry group executive—has proposed rules to improve indoor 911 call accuracy that may be more challenging for cellular companies than the original Phase II rules devised in 1996. The proposals issued Thursday would require wireless carriers to provide improved indoor location accuracy, and add vertical (Z-axis) location data with three-meter accuracy to the ANI/ALI data transmitted to public safety answering points (PSAP). The FCC also urged public safety answering points (PSAP) to improve their technology to handle more accurate locations, and pushed companies for improved technology in the future to locate 911 callers. The commissioners were not unanimous in their approval of the new rules, saying that neither the technology nor the FCC’s timetable for improved accuracy has been fully thought out. But they all acknowledged the trend—up to 80% of 911 callers now use a cellular phone to report emergencies, more homeowners have wireless-only telephone service, and more 911 callers are calling from inside structures that could be 50 stories tall. As for the irony, from 1992 to 2004 FCC chair Tom Wheeler headed the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), the group that wrestled to implement the original wireless location rules. At the time, the FCC’s rules were an enormous burden for the cellular industry, which was attempting to expand their networks and add subscribers, rather than tackling the difficult issue of pinpointing 911 callers. Download (pdf) the full Notice here. details

A committee of the European Union (EU) has approved a plan to create the infrastructure necessary to support the auto-dialing of the 1-1-2 emergency telephone number by vehicles involved in a collision anywhere in Europe. The decision is based on research that shows that the immediate notification of emergency services could potentially reduce response times by up to 50% in rural areas and up to 40% in urban areas. Several EU countries already have some form of automatic crash notification (ACN) system, but the EU parliament wants to standardize it and make it operate EU-wide. Last December the European Transport Safety Council approved the so-called eCall system, and this week the EU’s internal market committee also approved the plan, which would initially cover new cars and vans. The system would detect a vehicle collision, much as the ACN system proposed for the United States. The call would be routed to a call center, which is now usually the emergency center in the European countries that are already using the technology. The current deadline for automakers is Oct. 2015, but it could be delayed by implementation complexities, the committee noted. There are private systems operating in the U.S., including OnStar, Ford 911 Assist, BMW Assist and Lexus Link. However, there is no initiative to mandate all vehicles be equipped and for public safety answering points (PSAP) to handle ACN telephone calls. Download (pdf) a comprehensive description of the eCall system (with county-by-country studies) here, and the Transport Council’s evaluation of the system here. diagrams

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper who pulled over a Miami police officer for speeding in 2011 has filed a lawsuit claiming 88 officers illegally accessed her driver’s license records, most likely to harass her for making the car stop. The lawsuit has put a spotlight on a federal law that provides a penalty of $2,500 for each illegal access of a person’s driver’s license record, and has implications for routine queries by law enforcement officers or dispatchers. Trooper Donna Watts pulled over Miami police officer Fausto Lopez as he drove 120 mph in a police car and in uniform. Lopez was enroute to an off-duty job authorized by his agency. Watts handcuffed Lopez and cited him, and the incident became the top news in Florida after Lopez was fired. Watts suddenly began receiving threats and intimidating communications from persons that Watts believes are law enforcement officers. She eventually learned some officers were accessing her driver’s license record while on-duty. She retained an attorney, subpoenaed state records and learned that 88 officers had run her driver’s license record. In response to her lawsuit several officers have said they ran Watts’ record to help protect her from the threats. Groups that represent police agencies say the federal law doesn’t cover the situation and the $2,500 penalty is too severe. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a brief with the court supporting the law. Read more about the lawsuit here, and download (pdf) the original lawsuit complaint here.

After two years of brutal newspaper investigations into how the Los Angeles Fire Department handles emergency medical incidents, the agency announced that it will completely revamp its emergency medical dispatching (EMD) system, essentially dropping a system that’s used world-wide and creating its own set of questioning protocols. According to an announcement yesterday, the department will spend $400,000 and the next year to develop fewer and more streamlined questions to ask 911 callers when they report a medical emergency, leading to a quicker response. The Los Angeles Times newspaper began a series of investigations and stories in 2012 about slow call handling, overly-complex questioning routines and delayed notification of fields units for medical incidents. The department is now using the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) from Priority Dispatch Inc. The EMS protocols were developed in the 1970s by Dr. Jeff Clawson, and have now been supplemented to include law enforcement and fire questioning protocols. Clawson has earlier defended the EMD system, saying that any problems were created by LAFD dispatchers not following the protocol. Read more about the new EMD system here.

A woman mistakenly arrested on a warrant by Punta Gorda (Fla.) police officers last December has retained an attorney, and is claiming a dispatcher failed to properly confirm the warrant because of a joint relationship the women had with a man. So far, no lawsuit has been filed, but the attorney and Brandy Lowe are demanding answers. After Lowe was detained last year, officers requested a records check. Dispatcher Cindy Proud performed that check and determined there was a outside agency warrant for a person with Lowe’s name. According to a police investigation, Proud was laughing on a logging tape after hearing Lowe’s name on the radio. Officers arrested Lowe on the warrant, despite her explanation that she did not have a warrant. According to Lowe’s attorney, Proud should have requested a photo of the correct Lowe linked to the warrant in order to confirm the identify of the wanted person. After four days in jail, Lowe’s mother came up with her own photo of the woman actually linked to the warrant, and her daughter was released. During a police investigation, Proud admitted laughing and attributed it to believing in “Karma.” The report doesn’t state if Proud was disciplined for the incident. Read more about the situation here and watch a video after the break. video

One of the most comprehensive staffing studies ever conducted of public safety•comm centers has concluded that San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Communications (DEC) is overstaffed by up to 300% at certain times of the day, and that a typical dispatcher is only available for work 58% during a average work-year. The audit by the city’s Office of the Controller also found that calltakers are given too much time between telephone calls, and just one other comparable agency provides a paid one-hour meal break. The controller recommended the DEC more efficiently assign dispatchers, focusing on the busiest 5 p.m. hour for most days, and the least-busy 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. period. They also said the DEC should consider reducing the one-hour meal break, which causes extensive scheduling difficulties—the DEC has 11 different shift starting times. Switching to a 30-minute meal break would increase dispatcher availability by 11%, the study found. The DEC scheduling process was also included in the study, covering shifts, vacations, floating holiday, weekly and daily updates. The process is entirely manual, prepared on paper forms and with Microsoft Word and Excel. The controller recommended the agency begin using scheduling software. The study includes extensive tables and charts that further explain the center’s operation. Download (pdf) the full report here, and also read the many comments that were posted in response to this story and the report. charts

The U.S. Justice Department continues to fight the release of emails stored on Story County (Iowa) computers, under the account of county sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and on the subject of the FirstNet public safety wireless project. Both sides have filed hundreds of pages of documents on the issue, and will argue their positions in-person on March 5th in U.S. District Court in Des Moines. Fitzgerald is a member of the FirstNet board, and from nearly his first day was critical of how the board was internally sharing information. Last year the Politico Web site submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the county for Fitzgerald’s emails. The county stated its intention to release the emails. However, the DOJ objected to the release, claiming Fitzgerald is a “Special Government Employee,” and that the emails are exempt from the FOIA. Releasing the emails could cause “significant harm” if released to the public, the DOJ has claimed in court documents. Story County officials dispute Fitzgerald’s federal employment status, and say the federal government has only made “mere assertions” that irreparable harm would result if the emails are released. The court issued a preliminary injunction to prevent release of the emails, but has scheduled the hearing to consider a permanent injunction. Download (pdf) a 131-page collection of selected court documents here.