≡ Menu

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.

Frustrated with a decade of missed deadlines, technical failures and $1.3 billion in spending, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has shut down the city’s emergency communications upgrade project, and ordered a multi-agency review of how the project should move forward. In a press release, de Blasio said his office has been examining the project since he took office in January, and, “uncovered additional technical design, systems integration and project management risks beyond the previously publicly documented challenges.” The expansive project started in 2009 with the intent to create a single-location comm center for the city’s police, fire and EMS agencies, which had operated independently for 100 years. The project also included 911, comm center and radio upgrades. However, many deadlines were missed, the project was chronically over-budget and many technical systems didn’t work as designed. In his announcement, de Blasio halted all expenditures, new contracts or major system changes. He also moved the Office of Citywide Emergency Communications under command of the city’s information technology commissioner. Lastly, de Blasio ordered separate reviews by the city’s information technology commissioner, Department of Investigation and City Comptroller. Read the press release and reactions by city officials here. Update: The FDNY fire officers’ union later released a list of CAD addressing errors, including ones made during a Dec. 2013 fatal train derailment. On May 30, 2014 a rally and two city council hearings were held over the mishandling of 911 calls.

In the weeks before a Denver (Colo.) woman was murdered, several police dispatchers complained to supervisors that updated incident information entered by callers into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system wasn’t triggering an on-screen alert for radio dispatchers. But despite their complaints, the problem wasn’t fixed, and may have contributed to a huge gap in information for officers responding to a woman’s 911 call that ended in her death. Comm center officials refused to be interviewed by Fox31-TV, but dispatchers anonymously told reporters that they began reporting the problem in early April after a software update. Kristine Kirk dialed 911 for help when her husband became violent on April 12th. Officers were immediately dispatched and enroute. When Kirk said her husband had armed himself with a gun, the calltaker entered the information into CAD. The radio dispatcher, however, didn’t relay the information to officers. Instead, a responding officer noticed the update on his in-car laptop and relayed it to other officers. Kirk’s husband allegedly shot and killed her before officers arrived, and while the calltaker was still on the line with her. Dispatchers say that when they radio dispatching, a small red icon should appear on their screen when information has been added to an incident by any calltaker. That icon stopped appearing after the software update, they say, leaving radio dispatchers unaware that incidents had been updated. It’s not clear—and possibly impossible to determine—if the icon failed to appear for Kirk’s incident. According to Fox31, dispatchers complained 11 times about the glitch in the period from after the software update to just before Kirk’s murder. The complaints continued for two weeks after the murder, with 12 more issues logged. Download (pdf) the complaint log for the details. Update: On June 6, 2014 the radio dispatcher reportedly resigned in the face of being fired by the city in connection with this incident. On June 11, 2014 the police department changed several policies intended to prevent a future similar delayed response.

A survey of dialing 911 from multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) in Texas has found that 73 percent of calls were properly routed to a public safety answering point (PSAP), although fewer calls were completed if the tester dialed 9-1-1 instead of preceding the number with the outbound digit “9.” The 232 test calls performed by member agencies of the state’s Commission on State Emergency Communications (CSEC) also show that schools, hospitals, hotels and businesses varied very little in their dialing success rate. The issue of 911 access from MLTS telephones has been on-going among public safety groups for 25 years, including the accuracy of the ALI delivered by the originating telephone system. But MLTS difficulties were spotlighted recently by the Jan. 2014 murder of Kari Dunn in a Marshall (Tex.) hotel room. Dunn’s 9 year-old daughter repeatedly dialed 911 for help from the hotel room’s telephone, but could not make a connection because the phone system required first dialing “9” to obtain an outside line. The girl was unaware of that dialing restriction, and eventually sought help from other tenants of the hotel, who telephoned for help. Dunn’s father Hank Dunn has begun a “No 9 Needed” campaign to require that MLTS systems allow direct dialing of 911, with or without the “9” access digit. survey results

A Philadelphia police dispatcher has been indicted by a federal grand jury for accepting up to $200 a week in bribes to divert calls for tow trucks to a particular company, and disclosing confidential information. Dorian Parsley, 44, was named in the indictment unsealed last Friday, along with three employees of the Philadelphia towing company K&B Autocraft. Parsley has been a PPD dispatcher since 1998, with full access to state and NCIC criminal justice databases. She was employed in 2011, the U.S. attorney says, when the city instituted a tow rotation system to end a long-standing practice of tow companies chasing accidents and vehicle breakdowns. On several occasions tow company employees engaged in dispute and fights, including a fatal incident. Parsley also signed standard PPD employee agreements not to accept gifts, loans or favors, and not to disclose confidential information. However, the indictment alleges that between Feb. 2011 and Dec. 2013 Parsley secretly texted tow company employees the locations of accidents, police units and vehicle registration information, in exchange for cash bribes totaling $100 to $200 a week. Specifically, a confidential informant inserted into the operation by the FBI said Parsley alerted tow truck drivers of incidents needing a tow truck prior to them being assigned to the tow rotation system. Parsley also provided the informant with confidential vehicle registration information. Parsley is charged with four counts of bribery and two counts of wire fraud. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Parsley has been suspended by the police department for 30 days “with intent to dismiss.” Download (pdf) the indictment document.

A Pennsylvania woman has filed a lawsuit against the Cambria County Department of Emergency Services alleging it failed to take action in 2012 when she dialed 911 for help as one of their public safety dispatchers assaulted her. Lisa Flynn says in a federal lawsuit that when she telephoned for help, off-duty dispatcher Charles Pavlosky took the phone from her, talked to the calltaker, and then no police ever responded to help her. The two were in a dating relationship for two years, but Flynn says Pavlosky became violent over a five-month period. Flynn says one night she returned home were Pavlosky was hiding inside and attacked her. “During the struggle,” the lawsuit states, “plaintiff managed to grab her cell phone and dial 9-1-1. Pavloskhy grabbed the phone from plaintiff and spoke with the 9-1-1 operator, instructing them not to send the police.” During the call Flynn was screaming for help, the lawsuit states. As a result of the non-response, Flynn was sexually assaulted and required hospitalization. The county had suspended Pavlosky for two weeks after a incident five months earlier, but didn’t fire him. “It was foreseeable that Plaintiff would be harmed and injured by failing to dispatch police,” the lawsuit says. The lawsuit doesn’t ask for specific damages. Download (pdf) the lawsuit complaint for more details.

Two computer software programming faults were responsible for the state-wide Washington 911 outage in early April, telecom executives have reported, and it’s been revealed that two other states were affected as well. The software issues blocked at least 4,500 calls from reaching public safety answering points (PSAP) in the state for about six hours on April 10th, but didn’t result in any serious consequences, state officials have said. According to a report filed with the state by CenturyLink, the state’s 911 provider, all 911 calls are routed to an Intrado Inc. facility in Colorado for routing to the proper PSAP. When the calls and ANI/ALI data arrive at the facility, they are assigned a unique identification key, which is essential for the routing process. Intrado’s computers periodically recycle the keys after they reach 40 to 60 million. However, in this case, the keys had not been reset since September 2013 and reached their maximum limit. The Intrado computers stopped assigning keys, effectively blocking the handling and routing of 911 through the facility. This situation did set off a computer alarm, but Intrado had set the alarm priority to a relatively low setting. When the keys were exhausted, technicians did not consider the situation as drastic. About 770 calls were routed to Intrado’s Florida facility and were processed normally. However, most calls were blocked. CenturyLink said six to eight PSAPs in North Carolina and 11 in Minnesota also experienced routing problems. There were 127 affected PSAPs in Washington state. State officials say Intrado has enhanced the alarm for this situation, and state officials have asked them to balance call handling between the Colorado and Florida facilities. Read more about the report here.

The law enforcement agencies hunting down a former Los Angeles police officer for murder last year were hampered by poor regional radio communications, deficient command and control of officers, and an overwhelming amount of information from the public. But the 122-page report by the Police Foundation praised the scores of agencies in 10 counties who managed to track down Christopher Dorner despite the many obstacles, and to end his murderous rampage. Dorner shot and killed four people and wounded several others over two weeks in February 2013. He likely shot himself while cornered in a burning house that was surrounded by law enforcement officers near Big Bear in the San Bernardino mountains. In one telling incident, a citizen spotted Dorner driving a pick-up truck and alerted two nearby LAPD officers who were on a break from protecting one of Dorner’s potential victims. However, they were out of radio range, about 32 miles east of LA’s city limits, and couldn’t reach a dispatcher. One of the officer’s had a cellular phone, but it fell from his hand and was damaged. As the officers followed the vehicle, Dorner pulled off the road and fired 29 shots at them, disabling the vehicle. The officers had to use a passerby’s cellular phone to dial 911 for help. [click to continue…]

A two-page letter written by a telephone company executive in 1966 has been discovered, and helps to explain the company’s early technical and financial objections to implementing a universal emergency telephone number. Just two years and 22 days later, those objections faded away and the first 911 call was placed in Haleyville (Ala.) and later spread nationwide. The letter comes from the personal archives of retired Mercer Island Fire Department Capt. Ronald Becker, who also happened to be a stockholder of Pacific Northwest Bell (PNB). Becker and other stockholders were invited by the company to make suggestions for improving telephone service and, being a firefighter, he suggested the idea of a universal emergency number. PNB marketing executive Don Gavin wrote a letter back to Becker thanking him for the idea, but explaining that such a number would not be “economically feasible nor practical.” Gavin pointed out that a three-digit number for fire departments would block off 10,000 telephone numbers in each calling region, and even more numbers if the FBI, civil defense and police departments wanted their own numbers. Gavin also noted a problem in routing the calls to the proper fire station. Despite those problems, Gavin did say that a single fire department number might be practical “sometime in the future.” In fact, on February 16, 1968 the Alabama Telephone Company carried the first 911 call in Haleyville, allowing one-number access to all emergency services. Mr. Becker, now 81, retired as a captain from the MIFD after 26 years of service, including work in the 1970s to focus the department more to EMS operations. Read more details on the history of 911 here and read the letter to Becker after the break. PNB letter

Three very senior Minneapolis (Minn.) public safety dispatchers sat down with a local TV reporter this week and went public with their complaints that the center is understaffed during many periods of the day, leading to extended answer times for 911 calls. WCCO-TV revealed the potential problems in answer calls last year, but city officials claimed staffing and answer times are not a problem. Now the TV reporter has obtained statistical reports that show some 911 calls go unanswered for up to three minutes. In an interview, dispatchers Jane Engebretson, Lynn Staack and Michelle Swenson said five to 10 years ago, there were from five to seven dispatchers on-duty at all times. Now, the dispatchers claim they’re lucky to have two dispatchers on duty at all time. It took city officials six weeks to provide the statistical reports to the reporter, since they had to hand-prepare the report. The TV reporter identified several times of day that seemed to have longer answer times: 2:30 to 3:30 a.m. on Sundays, and 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Fridays. Both periods had several calls with answer times over two minutes. Read more about the TV report, and about the associated staffing shortages. video report

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) has suspended four dispatchers who handled a multi-alarm fire that claimed the life of two toddlers, and are investigating the disciplinary records of other dispatchers assigned to the Queens communications center for other potential suspensions. The fire department is also reviewing its supervisory protocols to insure compliance with industry standards. The fatal fire occurred on April 19th just before midnight, and a proper fire response was dispatched. However, a probe by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) found that when arriving units reported a working fire (10-75), none of the six on-duty dispatchers made the required, routine notification for an EMS response. Even after field units radioed for EMS, there was no notification until seven minutes after the 10-75. The first EMS unit arrived on-scene 21 minutes after the fire was reported by 911 callers. The two children were rescued from the basement of the building but did not survive. [click to continue…]

A Denver (Colo.) public safety dispatcher was fired earlier this month for not immediately dispatching an officer to a cold report of a burglary at the mayor’s office, prompting changes in how crimes against government victims are handled by dispatchers. The incidents raise the question if government officials or their staff will receive better service than ordinary citizens under the same circumstances. Last October a staffer in the mayor’s office reported the burglary, and radio dispatcher Traci Rhodes queued it for assignment to an officer based on standard dispatching policies (within precinct first, holdable for an hour). However, after 35 minutes a mayor’s staffer called the police department’s deputy chief of administration to complain about the slow response time. The deputy chief called a comm center supervisor, who ordered Rhodes to immediately assign an officer. Denver 911 director Carl Simpson said Rhodes was fired for violating a policy that requires dispatchers to “assess each incident and recognize its importance by viewing it through the customer’s perspective.” He said Rhodes also had other performance deficiencies that supported termination. However, in letters appealing her firing, Rhodes noted that the mayor’s office had waited three hours to call the police department after discovering the burglary. She also said at the time officers were busy with more-uregent incidents. But Simpson said Rhodes should have recognized the incident was a “possible security breach” and that required a more prompt response. After the firing, the comm center changed its policy on notifications, now requiring dispatchers to notify a patrol supervisor when “Federal, State or Local Dignitaries or personnel within their office requests or requires a police response on the dignitary’s behalf.” Read more about the incident hereUpdate: Days after the dignitary notification policy was issued, the public safety department rescinded it, saying it had created the impression of special treatment for politicians and others.

A new survey conducted by a political action group has found near-unanimous support for improved 911 location accuracy among responding public safety answering point (PSAP) employees, especially for the 64% of calls that are made from indoor locations. The on-line survey conducted by the Find Me 911 coalition showed a startlingly high number of calls are made by callers who can’t provide their location, forcing dispatchers to rely on 911 network technology—or skill—to determine a response location. The survey results seem to provide support for new regulations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last February that would require more accurate indoor 911 locations, including vertical locations within multi-story buildings. The regulations were sparked by an increasingly number of callers using cellular phones from indoors. The new survey found that 76% of 911 calls are now made from wireless phones, and that 24% of respondents have very little or no confidence in the caller’s displayed location. Those surveyed also said that 84% of calls are sometimes or often inaccurate. Not surprisingly, 87% of respondents said Phase II 911 information was “critically important” to help location callers. The Find Me 911 coalition bills itself as a grassroots movement, but is financially backed by TruePosition Inc., a company that provides wireless location technology. TruePosition is lobbying Congress and the FCC to improve 911 call location accuracy, which could benefit itself and other companies who offer alternate technologies for locating cellular phones. Download the group’s PSAP survey, press release and respondent personal stories here. details

In a narrow 5-4 decision yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anonymous tips from the public provided during 911 telephone calls can be used as the starting point for a vehicle stop, eventually leading to an arrest and conviction. But the court said in the California case there were several specific steps and situations along the way that permitted CHP officers to stop a vehicle reportedly being driven erratically, making the decision difficult to use as a precedent in future incidents. In its decision, the court said the 911 caller provided specific information about the vehicle and its poor driving, including that there had been a near-accident. The court also gave weight to the source of the call—a 911 emergency system. “A 911 call has some features that allow for identifying and tracing callers, and thus provide some safeguards against making false reports with immunity,” the court wrote. Given these features, “A reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice before using such a system. The caller’s use of the 911 system is therefore one of the relevant circumstances that, taken together, justified the officer’s reliance on the information reported in the 911 call.” The court also considered that the caller’s information gave rise to the suspicion of drunk driving, and to the accuracy of the location the caller gave. Download the original court filing (pdf), read an analysis of the court’s decision by ScotusBlog, and read the Supreme Court’s full decision (pdf version).

Police in Denver (Colo.) held a press conference last week to address questions about a 13-minute response time to an incident that ended with the murder of a woman by her husband, while she was on the phone with a police dispatcher. In addition, police have admitted that a dispatcher did not broadcast information to officers that the husband had armed himself and the woman was screaming. Instead, a patrol officer noticed the notation on his in-car laptop and broadcast the information to other responding officers. Police said the 13-minute response time was normal, and within the average Priority 1 response time for the last four years (response time info, pdf). They also said an investigation is underway on whether the radio dispatcher erred by not broadcasting critical information to officers. Kristine Kirk dialed 911 when her husband became erratic after eating legal marijuana candy. Kirk dialed 911 and an unnamed calltaker took information from her that there was a gun in the house, but it was locked in a safe. Officers were dispatched almost immediately, police said, and the calltaker stayed on the line with Kirk to update the information in the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. After about 12 minutes Kirk told the calltaker that her husband has retrieved the handgun, and one minute later Kirk screamed and there was no further conversation. One minute later, the officer noticed the firearm notation on his laptop, and arriving officers found Kirk dead from a gunshot. Her husband was arrested and charged with murder. Read more about the incident timeline hereUpdate: The day after the incident, Denver officials put calltaker on administrative leave, and later changed its policy to include more incidents for a “Code 10″ emergency response. Read more about the priority code changes. A disciplinary action was begun in mid-May, and at the same time Fox31-TV reported that a recent software update may have contributed to the delayed relay of information to officers.