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.
LaGrange County (Ind.) sheriff’s dispatcher Heather Lock fielded a 911 call from a woman who had been abducted by a convicted murderer who escaped from state prison. Lock quickly recognized the peril the woman was in, told her to escape the and lock herself in a gas station restroom, and stayed on the line until officers arrived. The escapee, Michael Elliott, had left by then, but was captured the next day. Read another news account of the call here, and listen to part of the call here.
Declaring 911 access as a core value of American life, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has re-stated its goal of quickly implementing text-to-911 service to the United States, saying that if carriers implement it voluntarily, no additional federal regulations would be required. At its meeting yesterday, the FCC also issued a second Report & Order on the matter, seeking comment on its proposal to set a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for text-to-911 service—or sooner—and how the service can be expanded to other types of Internet services. In Sept. 2011 the commission raised questions about text-to-911 service as part of an R&O on next-generation 911 (NG911) service. Within a year major wireless carriers in the U.S. voluntarily agreed to begin making technical changes to provide the service, all without FCC regulatory requirements. Last year the FCC required wireless carriers to provide a bounce-back message to subscribers where text-to-911 service wasn’t available, but has been taking a hands-off approach since then. read more
An annual survey of states required by Congress has found that fewer states are now diverting the fees they collect for 911 services, and that spending has increased 24% over the past five years, now totaling $2.3 billion. Just four states told the General Accounting Office (GAO) they had used 911 surcharges and fees for non-911 purposes during 2012, the latest reporting period. That’s down from a high of 10 states reported by the survey in 2010. Several states still don’t track how they use 911 funds, and many did not provide answers to some of the latest survey questions. Arkansas was the only state that didn’t respond at all. States collect 911 fees either on a state (19), local (10) or state-local (22) basis, according to the survey, and total fees ranged from $2.0 million in Nevada to $212.8 million in Texas. The survey found that Illinois, Kansas, New York and Rhode Island diverted about $48.4 million of their 911 funds, or two percent of the national total. Most of these funds was used for “emergency first responder” programs, but still unrelated to 911. Among those states, Kansas reported that it investigated 21 expenditures of local funds, and found eight that required reimbursement by cities and towns because they weren’t 911-related. On the other hand, Rhode Island diverted 76% of its $16.5 million in 911 fees to other purposes. The survey now asks questions about NG911 spending, finding that eight states are making progress on the new technology. Kentucky led the list with $1.5 billion committed to creating a state-wide NG911 network. Download (pdf) the full report here.
Three years after the death of a woman in rural Northumberland County (Penn.), a federal judge has recommended her husband’s negligence lawsuit be dismissed because there was no violation of the victim’s constitutional rights. The ruling is subject to an appeal by either party, but could become final within two weeks. In his lawsuit filed in Feb. 2013, John Lamey said his 50 year-old wife Marie collapsed at their home, and he dialed 911. However, his call was routed to an adjacent county, and it took EMS units 18 minutes to arrive. EMS units from Northumberland County would have been closer and arrived sooner, the lawsuit claims. Marie Lamey died later at a hospital, and John Lamey claims the response delay was the proximate cause. The lawsuit notes that Northumberland County had turned on a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system one month prior to the incident, and that fire and EMS agencies had reported many addressing errors. “The misinformation was the result of a problem with the mapping software used by the 911 centers,” the lawsuit states. The county filed a response to the lawsuit stating , “does not allege a violation of a right secure by the Constitution and laws of the United (States).” Now U.S. Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick has agreed, saying the Fourtheenth Amendment to the Constitution generally confers “no affirmative right to government aid.” She listed several previous court rulings that uphold the opinion. In Lamey’s lawsuit, he “failed to state a plausible claim of violation.” Download (pdf) the pertinent lawsuit documents here.
The two Washington County (Ore.) dispatchers who handled a critical incident one year ago were affected in different ways—calltaker Jessica Newell later listened to the 82-minute 911 call during a debriefing. But radio dispatcher Nate Roder has never heard the logging tape of his broadcasts coordinating the response from several agencies. The two recalled their work during a recent interview with a news reporter, providing a rare and revealing glimpse into how a critical incident affects dispatchers both during and after an incident. Newell fielded a 911 call from the wife of an off-duty police officer. She said her husband was intoxicated, armed and threatening. The wife had locked herself in a bathroom with her 5 year-old daughter, and spoke to Newell during the entire incident. Roder coordinated the initial response by sheriff’s deputies and later other officers from around the county. It was tense, emotional and eventually successful—the man surrendered, despite several periods of gunfire exchanged between the suspect and officers. For Newell, “Exhaustion hit her after she hung up. She felt relief, then anger,” the reporter wrote. “But that anger mixed with sadness. Her emotions went up and down, changing and evolving.” Her involvement was complicated by her husband’s involvement in the incident—he’s a sheriff’s deputy. “Roder’s stress lifted,” after the incident, the story says. “He focused on the fact that no one was seriously injured. He took a lunch break, returned and started working.” Read the full story here.
A subcommittee of the U.S. Senate heard witnesses describe the current state of wireless 911 location technology, but the senators were divided on whether there should be new regulations to require improved accuracy. An increasing number of 911 calls are wireless, and more are being made indoors, limiting the ability of dispatchers to locate caller. The hearing was called to explore the current situation and possible legislative solutions. The Commerce subcommittee hearing last week included witnesses from the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the Cellular Telecommunications & Information Association (CTIA) a tech company Qualcomm, Inc. About 70 percent of the nation’s 911 calls are made using cellular telephones, according to NENA, and a combination of technical and geographic factors limits the delivery of a precise location to public safety answering points (PSAP). In particular, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has no location accuracy requirements for indoor 9-1-1 wireless calls, and an increasing number of these calls are being made, industry officials say. Gigi Smith, president of APCO, told the senators that “rebidding” the 911 system during a wireless call sometimes provides an improved location, but at the cost of time. Christ Guttman-McCabe, executive VP of the CTIA, focused on liability protection, funding and consolidation of centers. Trey Forgety, director of government affairs of NENA, said the Senate should support FCC rules to improve indoor 911 call accuracy. In their statements, the senators appeared divided on whether action is needed. Some spoke of new rules that would force wireless companies to advance location technology. However, others urged a collaborative process, saying new regulations without improved technology would be counterproductive. Watch video (2:42) of the committee hearing here, and download (pdf) the witness testimony here.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on a case involving anonymous 911 callers reporting crimes, and their decision this summer will have many implications for witnesses, criminals and public safety communications centers. Anonymous callers frequently report suspicious circumstances to dispatchers, but do not want to identify themselves for various reasons. These callers often provide detailed information when questioned, leading to significant arrests, even when the officers themselves see nothing criminal when they arrive. The case involves two northern California brothers stopped in 2008 by CHP officers on the basis of a radio BOLO, and arrested for possessing marijuana for sale. The radio broadcast was generated by a 911 call to the Mendocino County sheriff’s comm center from a person who did not identify him/herself. The Supreme Court is considering the specific question: Do law enforcement officers need to corroborate anonymously-provided information before detaining the persons identified in an anonymous tip or phone call? details
A federal court judge has ruled there is enough evidence to include the city of Denver (Colo.) in a lawsuit alleging communications center officials failed to properly re-train a dispatcher after he mishandled a previous case. The lawsuit involves a call that led to the shooting death of a 24 year-old man in 2012. The judge has previously ruled the city was not legally liable in the incident, leaving dispatcher Juan J. Rodrguez and the only defendant in the case. In his original ruling in June 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty said the plaintiffs had failed to show “deliberately indifferent training and supervision,” and had made no allegation of violating the victim’s constitutional rights. But in his ruling last week, Hegarty said new evidence showed that Rodriguez had previously mis-handled a 911 call in Feb. 2012, and that supervisors and the center director concluded Rodriguez had made several mistakes that put the caller in danger. Yet despite his lack of mistakes, he received only a 15 to 20-minute “verbal non-disciplinary coaching” session from a supervisor. Hegarty noted that the city had previously said Rodriguez had received a verbal reprimand, a more serious discipline. He wrote, “It is plausible that the City’s short counseling session was merely a routine coaching and did not sufficiently train Mr. Rodriguez in specific skills for handling 911 phone calls—in this instance, the ability to discern emergency situations.” He ruled the updated lawsuit complaint contains “sufficient plausible allegations to establish a constitutional violation,” and that it can continue with the city of Denver as one of the defendants. Download (pdf) the judge’s decision and the amended lawsuit here, and read more about the incident here.
Declaring its investigation into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings closed, today the Connecticut State Police released a massive collection of documents, 911 and radio logging tapes, and videos of its involvement in the case. The release includes 245 separate digital audio files of 911 calls—most from cellular phones—received by state police dispatchers, and of radio transmissions made by state troopers. The telephone tapes document five separate consoles in blocks of time up to 20 minutes. The radio tapes are similarly listed by specific radio channel. Certain sections of the audio files were blanked-out by the state police before release to protect the identity of involved people, including Sandy Hook teachers who heard gunfire in the hallways, and from school neighbors who hear gunshots from a distance. Most of the early radio transmissions are of state troopers asking questions about the location of the school and how to get there. Later in the incident, a hospital security guard dialed 911 to request assistance to secure the emergency room. Find the complete collection of state police materials here, and download just the audio logging tapes (.zip, 159 Mb) here.
A Dane County (Wisc.) radio dispatcher who misinterpreted a calltaker’s notations in the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system was not at fault when officers shot and killed a man armed with a knife last August. An investigation by the communications center found that officers would have handled the confrontation with a 59 year-old man the same way, regardless of the information provided to them by dispatcher Juan Olivas. Nevertheless, center director John Dejung said the incident is instructive that calltakers must obtain complete information about incidents, and accurately type it into CAD to avoid any misunderstandings. The incident began when a woman in Madison dialed 911 to say her husband was armed with a knife and had cut himself. She specifically told calltaker Shannon McNamara that she had not been cut or injured herself. With that information, McNamara typed into the CAD incident details, “HUSBAND CUT STOMACH W/KNIFE, IN BACKYARD NOW.” When Olivas then dispatched the information officers on the radio, he stated, “For a domestic. Husband cut wife in the stomach with a knife.” Officers arrived believing the caller had been injured by her husband. They confronted the man outside holding a knife, and fatally shot him. “Regardless of the misinterpretation,” Dejung said, “it would not have made a difference in the response.” Officers would have used lethal force in either case, police officials explained. Dejung said neither dispatcher would be disciplined and no comm center procedures would be changed. Read more about the incident here.