911 calls will be topic for House subcommittee this week

The House Public Service and Employees Subcommittee is scheduled to hear a proposal on Wednesday to make all “911 calls, transmissions, recordings of an emergency communications district and emergency communications board” confidential.

The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg. An amendment Tillis plans to offer on the bill clarifies that “transmission” includes video recordings and text messages of the emergency communications district and emergency communications boards.

The subcommittee normally meets for Bill Review at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays on the fifth floor of the Cordell Hull building in Room 5F, in which stakeholders interested in bills can share their thoughts. The subcommittee meets in regular session at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in Hearing Room IV.

The Tennessee Emergency Number Association earlier this month wrote to all members of the General Assembly stating its support for making all calls, recordings and transmissions confidential.

911 calls have been widely used by the press to report on problems with 911 systems, including understaffing, underfunding, or other technical problems that prevented assistance to the caller. (See ‘You’re supposed to be there for us’: Dallas 911 system remains a gamble for callers)

They have also been used to report on natural disasters. For example, the Knoxville News Sentinel published 911 calls from people calling in about the Gatlinburg fires, showing what was happening as the fire spread and the help given by emergency responders. The Knoxville newspaper also used 911 calls as part of an investigation into the way the sheriff’s office handles deputy-involved wrecks.

Jack McElroy, former editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, wrote in a column last month that lawmakers may not understand how critical these records are to the media fulfilling their watchdog role.

He gave several examples of how the news media helped to shed light on issues through access to 911 transmissions. Here is an excerpt from his column:

In 2011, an off-duty Campbell County detective crashed into a house in LaFollette. Initially the Tennessee Highway Patrol was called, but a 911 recording revealed that the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office tried to prevent state involvement as the details of the accident emerged.

“Hey, this is Campbell County,” a dispatcher told THP. “An officer said to signal 9 (disregard) your trooper. Said that they can do it, apparently it’s minimal damage or something.”

The damage was hardly minimal, though. There was a gaping hole in the wall, and the resident, who’d been sitting on a love seat in her living room, had a broken collarbone. Not surprisingly, alcohol appeared to be involved.

Under Tillis’s bill, an attempted cover-up would remain a police secret.
Such cases are not isolated, either.

Last year, reporter Travis Dorman told how Knox County Deputy Angela Varner failed to call in after she struck another motorist. A witness phoned 911, though.

“This police officer just rear-ended the hell out of this small red car, and now the cop is fleeing,” reported the witness.

Thanks to that and other 911 calls, Dorman was able to detail problems in the way the Sheriff’s Office has handled deputy-involved crashes.

Bringing to light problems that could be corrected was a reason reporter Matt Lakin listened to hundreds of hours of 911 recordings after the Gatlinburg wildfire. The records allowed him to reconstruct how the blaze outflanked firefighters and overwhelmed emergency responders.

They also highlighted problems that contributed to the devastation, such as:
The failure of hydrants: “We need water,” radioed Gatlinburg Fire Lt. Steve Ebb just minutes after the fire burst into the city. “We’ve already had one structure loss, and likely to have more.”

The confusion of dispatchers, who were telling residents to stay put hours into the blaze: “They’ll come and get you when it’s necessary,” radioed one.

The chaos of the evacuation routes: “I don’t know where to go,” reported one woman. “There’s fire everywhere. There was a car up the hill, but they were just as lost as us.”  

And Fire Capt. David Puckett’s desperate, and unsuccessful, calls to get the sirens in downtown Gatlinburg activated: “Can we set off the sirens?” he almost begged in his third call in an hour, “We’ve still got a lot of occupants out here and we need to be getting them evacuated.”

All of that would be withheld from the public if a bill like Tillis’ passes.

“Don’t keep E-911 calls secret from the public | Opinion” – Jack McElroy

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