E- 911 CALLS - Public or Private?



The press has been able to obtain recordings of 911 calls (public records) of celebrities including golf pro Tiger Woods, actor Charlie Sheen, pop singer Michael Jackson, etc. Do you think these 911 recordings should be public or private?

911 dispatch is funded by public monies collected from telephone fees (taxes). Loudon County's Emergency Communications District (E-911 Dispatch) is funded by telephone fees, and Loudon County taxpayers also contribute $544,913.00 (est.) to subsidize this operation.

A proposed 911 Senate and House bills has been introduced by two state lawmakers Senator Tracy (Memphis) and Representative Sparks. The proposed legislative bill originated at the request of Tennessee Emergency Communications (911) Board. "The Summary of the Bill: Requires all 911 calls, the transmissions of 911 calls, and all tape recordings of such calls to remain confidential, except for the purpose of handling emergency calls and for public safety purposes. Prohibits the release of 911 calls to any other party without the written consent of the 911 caller or a court order."   

The E-911dispatch police, ambulance, and fire service. Several years ago, some Rural Metro customers complained how 911 was not answering calls and Rural Metro was not being notified so they could respond. Instead of 911 contacting Rural Metro all the calls went to the local fire protection service. "What if" you were a Rural Metro customer and something happened and you couldn't access the records to hear what happened?

Do you recall a September 30 2008, school bus incident that made national news? A Loudon County bus driver was charged with driving under the influence after her school bus with 30 children inside was found stopped in the middle of a street. “The case against a Loudon school bus driver accused of driving under the influence and reckless endangerment was sent to the grand jury and then to criminal court.  As the investigation progressed the school board and administrators, h 911 calls disclosed… “ The day after Kwansy was charged with DUI while driving a school, 911 records show authorities received the fourth overdose call to her Loudon home since March...” Do you think that this should be a private matter, or public under current state law or public?

Below are two editorials in Thursday's Nashville Tennessean, one from the newspaper's editorial board that does not favor the passage of this proposed bill, and the other from State Senator Jim Tracy, the sponsor of the bill who supports closing these public records. Senator Tracy editorial argues several "What If" scenarios including "What If" a criminal requests 911 tapes? Criminals can also request other public records such as police reports with all the details.

According to the National Conference of State Legislature, six states including Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming keep 911 call recordings confidential. Georgia, Maine, Minnesota and South Dakota place some restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information contained in them. 

With no oversight, who will monitor and hold 911 accountable for the vital service that this public agency provides? Click to see Public in the Dark! E-911 Snafu 


911 calls are a matter of public record - now

Sealing records would endanger safety, citizens' right to know

1:11 AM, Mar. 24, 2011  

Raise your hand if you have complete trust in all functions of state and local government.

By most accounts, most of you are sitting on your hands right now. And while, in a perfect world, we could expect all taxpayer-funded institutions to always do the right thing, that simply has not been the case.

So when the General Assembly took up legislation recently to seal records of all 911 calls, there was real cause for alarm.

The sponsor of SB 1665, Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, says the measure is intended to prevent embarrassment of 911 callers when a taped call is rebroadcast by the media and to protect 911 callers from being harassed or intimidated by people who may have been named in the call.

Such motives are commendable but are misplaced with this bill. It may benefit a handful of people who have called in emergencies — though that claim is questionable — but it has the potential to do a lot of harm to the public at large.

Closing the records of emergency calls will mean that any errors or mistreatment of the callers by 911 operators could go undetected. Those operators have supervisors, but if all or part of the problem originates with the supervisor, poor operator practices could become a pattern that could endanger the welfare of future callers — unless 911 agencies know that records of their work is available for public scrutiny.

As recent incidents in Middle Tennessee have shown, emergency response is not always smooth and efficient:

• In January, a Williamson County woman waited nearly 40 minutes for police to arrive while a prowler tried to break into her home. County officials said her cell-phone signal was picked up by a tower within Metro Nashville's jurisdiction, and the message then had to be relayed to Williamson County officers.

• A Robertson County woman recently sued Metro government because her son died following an auto accident near the Davidson-Robertson county line. Davidson County ambulances were dispatched and took 15 to 20 minutes to respond, when Robertson County ambulances that were two minutes away were not contacted.

Under Tracy's bill, it is unlikely that either woman would be able to find out why the response to the 911 calls took so long. Even attempts to get information after the fact from Metro E-911 by Williamson County or Robertson County officials, respectively, could be rebuffed. In that respect, it becomes a greater public-safety issue to close records than to keep them open.

There also is a disturbing trend here that should not be overlooked. Sen. Tracy and other lawmakers are trying to restrict access to records of a government function even as they are trying, through separate legislation, to make it harder for the public to learn of legal notices. In Tracy's bill, the reason is to protect individuals. In the attempt to leave legal notices to government websites instead of newspapers, the reason given is cost. Tennesseans should look beyond the reasons given, however, to the real impact of these growing attempts to keep government dealings under wraps.

Are these bills potentially harmful to media organizations such as The Tennessean? You bet. But they also are potentially harmful to every resident of this state and their right to know.



Callers need protection from retaliation

Imagine the scenarios that would cause you to dial 911: a loved one having a heart attack; a child seriously injured in an accident; a neighbor in distress; your own medical emergency.

Now, imagine hearing that call broadcast over and over in the media, reliving one of the worst moments of your life during the TV news.

A 911 call is often one of the most painful and difficult moments a person will ever experience. Under current law, that pain and devastation is public record, available for anyone to inspect, listen to and even broadcast without your consent.

That's why I'm sponsoring sensible legislation to protect 911 callers. Senate Bill 1665, the Caller Protection Act, is designed to place reasonable protections on 911 calls in order to enhance public safety and personal dignity.

This legislation simply states that any call you make to 911 is confidential unless you give permission to have it released. Several other states have already adopted similar legislation to protect their citizens. It's time Tennesseans enjoyed the same common-sense protections.

In addition to the very real concern of protecting personal privacy, keeping 911 calls confidential also serves a vital public safety purpose. Consider these actual events that have occurred in Tennessee:

• A woman calls 911 to report a domestic dispute at her neighbor's home. A few weeks pass and her neighbor shows up on her porch, telling her he's listened to her 911 call and letting her know he didn't appreciate it. Though this situation was resolved, it certainly could have the effect of preventing future 911 calls — and it could easily have turned violent.

Criminals request tapes

• A man is released from the county jail. He goes to the local 911 center and asks about the call that resulted in his arrest. The 911 staff is able to confirm such a call, and he asks for the tape. Again, this scenario presents tremendous potential for violent or threatening behavior.

E-911 directors across the state tell me about known drug dealers and other criminals who ask for copies of 911 tapes related to them. It is not difficult to imagine that these individuals use this information to intimidate and harass neighbors, discouraging them from calling 911 to report criminal activity.

Balanced against the issue of public safety is the public's right to know how government operates. My bill provides for a means to access 911 calls. A caller may consent to the tape's release, and then the tape is public record. Further, if a caller fails to give consent but a compelling public interest in the release of the tape can be shown, a court may also order the release.

When you call 911, you should know your privacy and safety will be protected. It is such an important issue regarding personal privacy, and my legislation sets forth a simple, straightforward process that protects 911 callers and enhances public safety.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.