Dispatchers want 911 calls exempt from open records law

Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 2:27pm

The state’s emergency dispatchers said Tuesday they want to exempt 911 audiotapes from Tennessee’s open records law to save distraught crime victims and their families from hearing their calls played in the media.

The policy committee of the state Emergency Communications Board voted to support state legislation to make 911 tapes inaccessible to the media and others unless the caller consents to publicly release them.

Tapes of desperate 911 calls, often with terrified pleading and cries for help, have become a staple of TV news shows. By playing the tapes, reporters sometimes expose dis-patchers who mishandle calls.

“We want to protect folks from hearing the worst phone call they ever made in their life over and over and over,” Emergency Communications Board director Lynn Questell told The City Paper.

Alabama, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin are among states that already have proposed exempting emergency call recordings from open records laws. Open-government advocates call it a troubling trend away from transparency that denies the public the right to monitor government agencies.

But Questell said 911 operators aren’t trying to hide from media scrutiny.

“We’re not trying to protect ourselves,” she said. “If you have a disgruntled caller who’s upset with the call taker, they can just consent to have the tape released to the media. It’s really about trying to have some compassion for someone who’s called 911 because they’ve had a really horrible thing happen to them.”

The legislation also is needed to protect citizens who phone 911 to report suspected terrorist behavior, Questell said.

“There are homeland security issues. They’re saying if you see anything, call in and report it. Right now, it’s all subject to the Open Records Act. People think they’re calling 911 and it’s going to be confidential. Well, it’s an open record.” 

6 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 12/8/10 at 5:15

So, by throwing in the terrorist calls makes it a good reason to
stop the releases versus inappropriate or misguided information
from the 911 operators makes this necessary. The other states
mention says they have consider this, not that any have actually
passed such regulations. This is not good law but just more
watering down of our already weak sunshine law!

By: bfra on 12/8/10 at 6:47

So if 911 dispatchers can't handle their jobs, they don't want the public to know!

By: TAS232 on 12/8/10 at 7:58

In Georgia, 911 reports and recordings are not exempt from the Open Records Act. 911 materials are like intitial police (incident) reports, traffic citations, and arrest-booking reports are always available to the public - even if they are related to an open and active investigation. This position has been consistently supported by the courts.

Like many statutes, each time the Georgia Legislature meets there are attempts to change the Georgia ORA. Some of those attempts have been initiated by individuals and associations similar to those described in this article.

Sometimes you wonder if the attempts to make such changes are based upon "protecting victims" or attempting to find a way not to have to provide the materials to the public because it is a time consuming task to copy, type, redact, print, etc. Due to the nature of the information that they collect and the involved circumstances of each incident, it should be acknowledged that 911 Centers will always receive ORA requests from the public, the media, the insurance companies, etc.

The agencies should recognize their own circumstance and create or appoint a person or persons to efficiently and effectively coordinate and process the ORA requests. Additionally, where the statutes allow, the record holding agency should also reasonably charge the requestors for the materials that they seek and are provide to cover the cost to the agency for the expenditure of their limited resources.

By: gdiafante on 12/8/10 at 10:59

I don't think you read the story, bfra. It clearly states that if someone is unhappy with the 911 operator, they can already have it released to the media.

This is geared towards protecting those who call in and their families. I, for one, wouldn't want a tragedy exploited by the media either.

By: GUARDIAN on 12/8/10 at 12:19

GUARDIAN-BAD idea. The recording need to stay open. Many dispatchers just don't want people to hear and then know how sorry they are at their jobs.

By: courier37027 on 12/8/10 at 1:35

As long as public tax dollars are being use to fund 911, these calls and records should remain open to the public. If you want privacy, hire a private company to answer and dispatch calls. Sell subscriptions for your service.