≡ Menu

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.

An in-depth investigation into a four-minute response delay to an auto-pedestrian accident that killed a 4 year-old New York City girl last June has concluded it was caused by human error, and was not the fault of the city’s 911 or computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. In an 43-report released today, the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) concluded that dispatcher Edna Pringle simply failed to notice a pending medical incident on her computer screen for almost four minutes, then logged out and went on a 30-minute break. Her relief dispatcher logged in within 26 seconds, noticed the vehicle accident involving Ariel Russo and her mother, and took action within three seconds. A lieutenant supervising Pringle also did not see the incident, either on her screen or a larger screen at the front of the room. Russo was run down and pinned against a fence, and died at a hospital. Her mother was seriously injured but survived. The DOI said that Pringle had spoken on her personal cellular phone four times in the minutes before the incident—against policy—but that the calls did not affect the response time. The agency detailed how that the police, fire and CAD computer systems interact, requiring a “relay desk” dispatcher to view medical incidents reported by NYPD, and prepare them in the EMS computer for dispatch. The DOI also took a swipe at the fire department investigation, saying some witnesses were allowed to read other dispatcher’s statements before writing their own, putting accuracy into question. Some dispatchers said they were unfamiliar with various features of the CAD software, including how pending incident are displayed in reverse after being held for three minutes. Pringle was disciplined over her inattention, but the city hasn’t released details. Download (pdf) the full DOI report here.

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