Bill to seal 911 tapes could impact callers' privacy, public oversight

Critic questions need for secrecy

Conversations with 911 operators may soon be closed to the public, under a bill scheduled to come up today in the state legislature.

Tennessee could join six other states in restricting the release of the tapes of emergency calls, a move that supporters say protects the safety and privacy of 911 callers. But the measure also could reduce public scrutiny of 911 operators, making it harder to detect mistakes and misconduct in responses to emergencies, says an opponent of the bill.

"It's a government-funded function with services that the public relies on," said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. "If it all gets closed, there would be no public oversight by citizens and the press."

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, plans to present the legislation, Senate Bill 1665, at a meeting this morning of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The bill would require outside parties to get a court order or written permission from callers before 911 systems would release tapes of calls.

The measure is meant to keep media outlets from rebroadcasting 911 calls that would embarrass or upset the caller and to protect callers from harassment or intimidation from people named in the call, Tracy said.

"If it's a situation where a person wants to keep it private, we need to keep it private," he said.

6 states have similar laws

The bill is also backed by the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, the state agency that oversees 911 systems statewide. Alabama, Wyoming and four other states have similar laws on the books.

"Believe it or not, there are other people who know our public records law, and they go down and get the record and strongly suggest to people that they not make 911 calls to report suspicious activity," said Andy Spears, the board's director of government and external affairs. "We want people to know that when they call 911, that it's a safe call."

But the bill also would keep emergency services from having to give out information about their response, Gibson said. Such information has been used to show that responses have been mishandled.

"Say you're a parent, and your child is hurt, and it takes 45 minutes for them to respond," he said. "Should you be forced to hire a lawyer and go to court and get the records to show why it took them 45 minutes to get there?"911

Gibson said the bill may also shield computer logs and other information associated with the call from public disclosure. But Spears said that only the audiotape itself would be sealed and that his agency would advise 911 systems to seek callers' permission to release the tape whenever asked.

"If I don't think 911 handled it correctly, I'm absolutely going to go public," Spears said.

The bill must clear the State and Local Government Committee before it can go to the full Senate for a vote. The state House of Representatives has not taken up the measure.

Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or


Senator Jim Tracy

District 16 Bedford, Moore, and part of Rutherford Counties

District address: 106 Finch Lane
Shelbyville, TN 37160
Nashville address: 301 6th Avenue North, Suite 2 Legislative Plaza.
Nashville, TN 37243; Phone 615-741-1066; Fax 615-741-2255

Emergency Communications Districts - As introduced, makes 911 calls and transmissions of such calls confidential. - Amends TCA Title 7, Chapter 86, Part 1 and Title 10, Chapter 7, Part 5.

HB 1539 - SB 1665 - March 1, 2011

SUMMARY OF 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.



By Sparks


By Tracy

AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 7, Chapter 86, Part 1 and Title 10, Chapter 7, Part 5, relative to confidentiality of emergency service calls.


SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 7, Chapter 86, Part 1, is amended by

adding the following as a new section:

7-86-1__. Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, all 911 calls and

transmissions of such calls received pursuant to this chapter and all tapes containing

records of such calls shall remain confidential and be used only for the purpose of

handling emergency calls and for public safety purposes as may be needed for law

enforcement, fire, medical, rescue, dispatching, or other emergency services. The 911

calls shall not be released to any other parties without the written consent of the caller

whose voice is recorded, or upon order of the court.

SECTION 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it.