≡ Menu

The description of a session on 911 at this year’s annual DEF CON 22 hacker conference in Las Vegas (Nev.) looks ominous, but the presenters’ backgrounds and the evolution of the conference indicates that no one is trying to take down the nation’s 911 networks. The computer security conference begins August 7th and hosts over 12,000 people from all levels of government and the private-sector, along with elements of the computer hacking and cracking community. The 911 session is titled, “Hacking 911: Adventures in Disruption, Destruction, and Death,” and is being hosted by two medical doctors and a senior manager from a major computer consulting firm. The session description teases, “Ever wonder what you would do if the people you needed most on the worst day of your entire life just weren’t there?” It then goes on to say the presenters will, “review the archaic nature of the 911 dispatch system and its failure to evolve with a cellular world…how the mischief of swatting and phreaking can quickly transform into the mayhem of cyberwarfare, and the medical devastation that arises in a world without 911.” Significantly, the description also says, “Addressing these problems is a Herculean task but the alternative is a system susceptible to total ownage at the worst possible time.” DEF CON began in 1993, and over the years has been greeted by suspicious government agencies with surveillance and arrests. However, the conference now includes government and corporate employees, private security researchers, and journalists, but with a sprinkling of the original hacker attendees. Read full information about the session hereUpdate: Christian Dameff and Jeff Tully, the presenters of the session, talked to a Wired reporter about their 911 network findings, which have all been documented within the industry for years.

The murder of a 67 year-old woman this month in Jackson (Miss.) created immediate anguish among the victim’s family, but the community became outraged after police released the victim’s 911 call and learned how police responded. Ruth Harrion was beaten, strangled and shot, and her neck was broken. She was then dragged into the back yard of her home by one or more suspects. Police say they are still looking for suspects that were seen running from the property at 3:23 a.m.. At first the murder appeared routine. But when police released the 911 logging tape, it revealed some startling mistakes. First, the tape showed the calltaker uttered just 11 words during the 13-second call, failing to obtain any details or to keep Harrion on the line. Second, two officers arrived on-scene within eight minutes, and knocked on the front dor. But they apparently failed to investigate or sufficiently search the property, and did not notice the house had been broken into, or find Harrion’s body. It wasn’t until 1 p.m. the same day that family members found her body when she failed to answer the front door. As the community outrage grew, police chief Lindsay Horton retired one week after the incident. In prior press conferences, he admitted officers “could have done a better job.” He had promised a thorough investigation of the unnamed calltaker’s handling of the 911 call. Read more about the situation. call transcript

A former Philadelphia police dispatcher has pleaded guilty to several federal charges related to feeding information to private tow truck companies, and now faces up to 35 years in prison. Dorian Parsley, 44, of Philadelphia, appeared in court yesterday and admitted to charges of conspiracy, solicitation of a bribe, and honest services fraud. According to the federal indictment, between February 2011 and December 2013 Parsley provided tow truck operators with the locations of auto accidents and police squad cars, and vehicle registration information in exchange for cash payments. According to the U.S. Attorney, “She typically received $100 to $200 per week for the information,” totaling at least $35,400. According to court documents, Parsley used her personal cell phone to surreptitiously text the information to those tow truck operators. A tow company employee, William Cheeseman, also pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of bribery for paying Parsley $9,000 for information on accident locations. The U.S. Attorney says Parsley faces up to 35 years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $750,000 fine, and a $300 special assessment. Parsley will appear in court on October 21, 2014 for sentencing.

A series of critical news stories about Motorola’s sales techniques for public safety radio systems has caught the eye of the U.S. Congress, which has officially asked for answers about how federal grant money has been awarded to the company. Reporters from the McClatchy news group have been documenting how Motorola gains millions of dollars in contracts through the use of proprietary electronics that locks out competitors’ bids, close relationships with government officials, and add-on sales that circumvent competitive bidding requirements. After reading the stories, last week U.S. House Rep. Henry Waxman, Diana DeGette and Anna Eshoo wrote a three-page letter to the Department of Homeland Ssecurity asking the agency to review bids involving Motorola and possibly tighten up bid procedures. The McClatchy stories started last March with one that detailed how Motorola “spreads its money and influence far and wide.” The company donated $26 million over six years to nonprofit organizations formed by law enforcement and firefighting interests, McClatchy said. Motorola responded to the McClatchy stories in April, saying, “It is very disturbing that a news organization would cast suspicion of any Motorola contract with a government entity that did not fit a generic, competitive-bid model.” McClatchy published a story about the response, but also raised additional questions about Motorola contracts. Then last month McClatchy published a very long story about how Motorola captured several big contracts financed in-part by federal grants, using Washington lobbyists to “open the door.” As a result of that story, the three members of Congress are now asking the DHS’ Inspector General to examine several grant projects for compliance issues, provide a list of grant recipients and if their projects were competitively bid, and if DHS policies should be revised to help deter proprietary equipment purchases. Update: Radio manufacturer Relm is formally protesting a “infinite delivery” contract Motorola has with the federal government to supply radios to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

When a man dialed 911 last Saturday from a Pasadena (S. Calif.) home, it was chance that connected him to 7-year veteran dispatcher Diane Marin, who then spent 20 minutes listening to his confession of murder, and convincing the man to safely surrendering. Officers say they found three adult victims at the home, and are working to confirm if the incident involved domestic violence. Marin appeared at a press conference today and recalled talking to John I. Smith, 44. “My main concern was the safety of the officers and anyone out on the street,” she told reporters. “I was concerned that this person still had weapons. I was concerned about what they were planning to do to themselves and to the officers.” In fact, officers say Smith had three firearms and 90 rounds of ammunition. He had already fired over 40 rounds from an assault rifle at the victims and arriving police officers. Read more about the incident and press conference here. video report

The Find Me 911 Coalition has posted 911 call data from the District of Columbia showing that at best, about 25 percent of wireless 911 calls handled by dispatchers are accompanied by Phase II location data. The coalition uses the data to declare a “public safety crisis” in the District, and to again urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to pass regulations that would no doubt improve 911 location reporting, but also benefit the founding corporate members of the coalition, namely TruePosition. While there are many things in crisis within the District, 911 operations isn’t one of them. The city’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) has had its troubles since it combined police, fire and EMS dispatching back in 2006. But its operations are running much more smoothly in recent years. That leaves some questions about the coalition’s claims of a “crisis.” read more

A federal appeals court has ruled that email messages authored by an Iowa county sheriff in his role as a FirstNet board member are federal records, and cannot be disclosed, despite a reporter’s Freedom of Information request. The decision means that email communications between Story County sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and other members of the FirstNet board will remain secret, as specifically designated by Congress when it passed the laws creating the wireless data entity. Fitzgerald’s FirstNet-related emails had been requested by reporter Tony Romm, reporter for Politico, as part of an investigation into FirstNet board operations. Story County agreed to release the records, but the U.S. Attorney intervened, saying the records were confidential. Fitzgerald had made claims of inappropriate communications among board members, leading to a lengthy federal investigation into FirstNet’s first months of operation. In the decision last Thursday, U.S. District Court judge James Gritzner considered arguments from Story County officials that the emails originated from one of their employees, and were created with and sent via the sheriff’s county computer systems. Therefore, the county could release the emails to the public upon request. The judge also heard from a U.S. Attorney who simply said the emails were created under Fitzgerald’s role as a FirstNet board member, and so there was no county connection or ownership. Gritzner dismissed the claim that Fitzgerald had been illegally acting in two government capacities at one time, saying it might be true, but didn’t affect whether the emails should be released or not. Download (pdf) the court’s decision for more details.

The Milwaukee (Wisc.) police chief has issued a reminder to all personnel that he expects a prompt response to Priority 1 incidents, after he learned of a 22-minute response time to a fatal stabbing last Tuesday. Chief Edward Flynn noted the department’s incident prioritization procedures, and that, “Any squad can be preempted from an assignment to (respond to) a Priority 1 call.” He reminded officers that they are required to follow the directives of dispatchers, and respond to Priority 1 incidents, “as quickly and safely as possible.” In the fatal incident, a 60 year-old woman was stabbed repeatedly by her 52 year-old boyfriend. A 911 call reported the incident at 5:26 p.m., and two minutes later fire units were dispatched. An engine arrived and staged nearby at 5:31 p.m. However, they could not approach the scene until police units arrived at 5:48 p.m. Fire and EMS personnel attempted to save the woman, but she was declared dead at the scene. Police Lt. Mark Stanmeyer said all patrol units were assigned to other incidents when the stabbing was reported, leading to the response delay. Download (pdf) the chief’s memo, and read more about the incident here.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has received a handful of comments in response to its inquiry into a multi-state 911 outage last April, some explaining how the outage prevented 911 calls from being completed and others asking how the problem will be prevented in the future. The outage primarily affected public safety answering points (PSAP) in Washington, Minnesota and North Carolina, but other states also reported scattered outages at local 911 networks. In one set of comments filed by telecom provider CenturyLink, the company confirmed earlier reports that an Intrado computer programming error knocked several 911 networks off-line. The company also said that alarms were activated, but didn’t receive immediate priority attention by technicians. The outage lasted for six hours, CenturyLink said, and blocked at least 4,500 calls to 911. Officials of King County (Wash.) also filed comments, outlining their outage experience. As PSAPs began reporting problems, “The CenturyLink 911 Repair Center was quickly overloaded,” King County said. “The majority of the calls from PSAPs to the Repair Center to report the problem went unanswered or were put on hold for extended periods.” Once Intrado determined the problem, “They had to call in technicians and engineers from home to identify the cause and scope of the problem, which delayed the rerouting of 911 calls by several hours.” The Telecommunications & Information Association (TIA) filed comments telling the FCC that regulatory action wasn’t required, and that the FCC should support the voluntary actions being taken by companies to ensure network reliability. Download (pdf) the FCC’s original inquiry here, and the latest comments here.

In the midst of research by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on tightening 911 call locating regulations, a company that offers location technology has posted a study that claims existing methods can meet any future requirements. The study was performed by an independent engineering firm for TruePosition, and is meant to counter claims by cellular carriers that current technology can’t locate cellular 911 callers under more stringent proposed FCC rules, including for callers inside buildings. According to a TruePosition press release, “The study clearly demonstrates that existing technologies can satisfy location requirements within the timeframe proposed by the FCC in its draft rule on indoor 9-1-1 accuracy for wireless calls.” The tests were conducted earlier this year by TechnoCom in the Wilmington (Del.) area, and used UTDOA on a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone. The firm concluded that the location-finding performance, “readily meets the FCC’s proposed location performance threshold for indoor wireless E911.” In fact, the technology already meets the 50-meter/80% requirement that won’t be required by the FCC for another five years. Download (pdf) the 84-page TruePosition study here.

A city audit of staffing at the Denver (Colo.) police department has found that longer response times are directly correlated to having fewer police officers and comm center dispatchers, and also uncovered that the department doesn’t use response times to help measure its success in fighting crime. The 56-page study recommended that the police department specifically determine how many officers its requires to accomplish its primary objectives, and that the agency routinely publish response time statistics to help establish performance goals. Since 2008 DPD has cancelled several academies, and along with attrition have left DPD with just 1,332 officers, compared to 1,550 officers in Jan. 2008, a 14 percent decline. Meanwhile, the average response times for Priority 0-2 for 2008–2013 increased from 11.4 minutes to 14.3 minutes, the audit found. Strangely, the police department does not routinely print-out or review response time reports, including the time from call pick-up to officer arrival. In the comm center, call waiting times are not monitored by supervisors, the auditors found, potentially leading to delayed responses. In their analysis, the auditors found that pick-up to queue times have actually decreased by one minute over the last six years. However, times have increased by four minutes for the incident handling segments of queue-to-assign and assign-to-arrival. The auditor recommended the police department begin monitoring queue times, and consider publicly releasing response time reports to the public. Download (pdf) the full audit here for more information on Denver’s situation, an explanation of response time statistics, and how DPD can begin increasing its staffing.

For the second time in six years, a Detroit (Mich.) police dispatcher has been criminally charged for mishandling a critical incident, and now faces up to a year in jail. The shooting last August led the mayor to shake-up the city’s communications center, including a demotion for the then-head of the unit. Both Detroit incidents demonstrate that public safety dispatchers not only face discipline or termination for misconduct, but can also face criminal charges. Detroit dispatcher Craig Miller, 46, was arraigned last week on neglect of duty charges, and was released on $5,000 bail. He will appear again in court on Thursday. He was handling radio dispatching last August when a woman reported a dispute with her boyfriend. Despite a series of escalating calls, officers weren’t dispatched for about one hour. By the time officers arrived, the woman had been stabbed, but survived her injuries. According to the prosecutor, Miller, “failed several times to dispatch officers in a timely manner to a 911 police run.” In a separate case, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy said another Detroit dispatcher would not be criminally charged for handling of a shooting in May 2013. Worthy said there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction on neglect of duty charges. Criminal charges against public safety dispatchers are rare, despite Detroit’s experience. In 2008 a Detroit dispatcher was found guilty of mishandling a 911 call from a boy reporting his mother was unconscious. She faced a year in jail, but was sentenced to one year of probation and 15 days of community service. A second dispatcher in the incident was acquitted.

A police investigation into a Milwaukee (Wisc.) hospital incident has found there were problems with the agency’s radio system, poor officer training and an error in the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) geofile, all leading to an injured infant and police shooting the suspect as he ran through the facility’s hallways. The investigation suggested several procedure and technical changes to improve how officers respond to Children’s Hospital in the future, and to critical incidents in general. The incident began when a woman called Milwaukee PD’s non-emergency number, and was transferred to the “differential response unit,” which normally handles incidents by telephone. A limited-duty officer there entered the incident details into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. He classified it as a Priority 1 since it involved the suspect and child then at Children’s Hospital. However, the incident should have been Priority 2, and the hospital is outside the city, and within the jurisdiction of the county sheriff. The comm center radio dispatcher, believing the incident had been properly entered into CAD, dispatched the incident to two officers. The officers took 30 minutes to arrive, and when they confronted the armed suspect, they experienced reception problems with the department’s Open Sky radio system. The investigation also cited several tactical errors by the officers, starting when they arrived at the hospital. The investigation recommended changes to CAD in order to flag outside-jurisdiction locations, and officer training on prioritizing CAD incidents. Read more about the incident and investigation here.

A panel of public safety, telephone and technical experts appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Thursday to explain the on-going transition of public safety communications to the Internet protocol (IP), pointing out the advantages of the technology, but also warning Congress of the pitfalls. The witnesses made it clear that adopting IP will take time and money, but depending upon their constituency, asked the Senators for regulatory or funding assistance. The upcoming NG911 national network would use IP to transport calls from end-to-end, allowing many service advantages for callers and public safety answering points (PSAP). But it also creates many potential issues from creating a nationwide and super-linked 911 system. Gigi Smith, president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), said IP voice quality was essential, so 911 calltakers can “hear and pass along subtle background sounds” when taking calls. She also mentioned reliability and restoration as key elements of IP-based public safety systems. Henning Schulzrinne, chief technology officer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), mentioned potential security issues, including denial of service attacks, determining a caller’s location and reliability. He also explained how various public warning systems would be included in an IP network, and that location-finding is the most immediate challenge. The Senators also heard testimony from Jonathan Banks, Sr. VP of U.S. Telecom, Jodie Griffin, Sr. staff attorney for the public interest group Public Knowledge, and Colette Honorable, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Watch the entire hearing video (1:43) here, and download (pdf) their testimony here. [click to continue…]

An analysis of calls handled by the Dane County (Wisc.) 911 Center shows that dispatchers are handling about 15,000 fewer calls over the last six years and has 17 more employees, yet incident dispatch times are an average of one minute longer. Now county executive Joe Parisi has ordered the center’s director to make changes to reduce call handling times, specifically dropping the use of Priority Dispatch protocols to help cut 25 seconds off the call handling process. Parisi wrote a memo last week to center director Joe Dejung outlining the protocol change and several others, and asking the 911 Board to approve them. “It needs to act and act now,” Parisi wrote. “If the Center is unable to help fix the issues facing the 911 Center in the next 45 days, this speaks to a problem with governance and oversight.” The center was the subject of intense scrutiny in 2008 after a high-profile murder that included a mishandled 911 call from the victim’s apartment. After the resignation of the center’s director in 2009, the 911 Board put Priority Dispatch protocols into place to ensure proper handling of all calls. Now Parisi points to the protocols as slowing down call handling, leaving fewer dispatchers available to promptly answer telephone calls. Besides dropping the police protocols, Parisi ordered changes to better handle seasonal call volume patterns, the hiring of part-timers, a review of the abandoned call process, and the direct-routing of some incidents directly to officers to bypass dispatchers. Download (pdf) Parisi’s memo for more details on his ordered changes, and read more about the situation here.