▼ To the point
Despite renewed calls to ban emergency dispatch recordings from public scrutiny, they should remain public information.
Keep 911 calls available to public
When an emergency or disaster situation happens, the fact that a 911 call is recorded is not likely on the mind of the witness or victim making the call.
The witness or victim is asking for help, and they want a response NOW.
Emergency dispatchers who answer those calls are trained to ask questions so that they know who and what to send. Should a fire truck be dispatched? Will one police officer be sufficient at the scene or should a backup car be notified? What medical equipment should the paramedics grab out of the ambulance when they arrive?
Most of the time, the system works well. The 911 system can trace the caller’s location in many cases. The dispatcher will determine if police, fire or EMS is needed. And the caller will be assured that help is on the way. But what if an emergency response doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to? The transcript or recording of the 911 call then becomes an important source in determing whether the emergency response team did the job to the best of its ability.
There has been a lot of public discussion recently on whether 911 calls should be available to the public and broadcast in the news media. One of the examples, according to news reports from the Associated Press, involves a TV station in South Carolina that got such a reaction from its audience on a call regarding a murder that it took the 911 recording off its Web site in just one day.
Ohio is one of the states that is considering whether to keep 911 recordings off limits to the public. There are other states that already have such bans.
The Monroe Evening News has requested 911 recordings and transcripts from time to time. The decision on whether to the include the call in the resulting news reports is made on a case-bycase basis with factors that include whether the phone call is helpful in understanding the eyewitness reports or the emergency response times.
And the public archives on the terrorist attacks of Sept.
11, 2001, do include many of the transcripts and recordings of the 911 calls from the World Trade Center that morning and we’re better for having them. According to news reports in 2006, the recordings backed up the Sept. 11 Commission’s conclusion that many emergency dispatchers that day didn’t have access to enough information to help the victims who were caught in the building. That helps emergency responders and the public better understand what happened and how another situation might save lives.
We understand that those who call 911 are not doing so with the intent of broadcasting their alarm, pain and grief to a wide audience on TV, in print or on the Web. Those who dial 911 are calling for help — and their intended audience is an emergency dispatcher who will send that help fast.
But taxpayer dollars are involved with ensuring the public safety. Those 911 calls should remain publicly accessible to answer questions that perhaps even the victims and families themselves want to ask later.
News media — and these days, citizen journalists — should act judiciously when considering use of a particular transcript or recording in a pubic forum.
But the recordings should remain public information.
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