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911 calls

Published June 27. 2011 05:02PM

The state House of Representatives is considering legislation that would close off all "identifying information" relating to 911 calls, including names, cross-street and location information in time response logs.

The Right to Know Law protects "records or parts of records, except time response logs..." pertaining to emergency dispatch calls. Time response logs, including cross-street information, have been ruled as presumptively open by Commonwealth Court. Pennsylvania Newspaper Assocation members are opposing House Bill 1174 for the following reasons:

• Such information allows the public to evaluate the adequacy and timing of response by 911 call centers and emergency services, and the tax dollars supporting those services.

• Without geographical information, there is no way to determine whether a response time was slow or fast - and no way to measure whether response times vary between socioeconomic areas.

• Incident addresses have long been public in police blotters and court records and are easily heard through police scanners, owned by many across the Commonwealth.

The intent of House Bill 1174 is to override that presumption of access by making nonpublic, except under a court order, any "identifying information" relevant in any call, including name and address information. The goal of the bill, we are told, is to prevent further harm to victims of domestic violence.

• This claim assumes that a would-be assailant would obtain and review the voluminous time response logs produced in possibly thousands of municipalities, for all kinds of emergency calls, to locate his target, based on the possibility of that person having at some point called 911.

• The claim that individuals "hesitate to call 911" in an emergency, for fear of their names going on record, is equally implausible.

• Some recent incidents ended tragically, due in large part to the failure of emergency system operators. In Bucks County, shortly before the 2008 Right to Know Law was enacted, a disabled woman died in her bed because the emergency response center put her call on hold and delayed the dispatch of firefighters. Eddie Polec, a 16-year-old, died after a beating in Philadelphia after emergency responders ignored or dismissed more than two dozen calls reporting the attack.

The Eddie Polec incident made national news and led to the overhaul of Philadelphia's emergency response system. Basic cross street information was critical to the public's understanding of those two tragic cases and provided grounds for reform and improvement of both systems.

Legislators who were members of the House in 2007-08 may recall that these same allegations of harm were raised in the debate when then-Senate Bill 1 was under consideration and negotiation.

These tragic histories illustrate why communities need geographic time response log information - one of many provisions of this important new law that should not be subject to such piecemeal attack.

By Jim Zbick

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