Tough Calls and Sunshine

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

                                                                           –  Justice Louis D. Brandeis


The quiet, almost mouse-like voice on the other end of the line was nearly imperceptible, and required me to say “Hello?” one more time to be sure that I heard something above the noise of work in progress at Allegheny County’s 9-1-1 center.

After another minute or so, I was able to get the small child’s first name, and from there was able to establish a better line of communication. The next step was to get a responsible adult on the phone – something my child caller was having difficulty with: 
Operator: “You need to get Mommy or Daddy.”

Child: “Mommy’s sleeping.”

Operator: “You need to wake her up.”

Child: “She won’t wake up.”

Thus began what I would describe as a tough call – one that would require all of the components of a best practice – technology, processes, and people – and a little bit of creative thinking to help bring the call to some kind of tangible resolution. 

Technology provided us with the location that the call was coming from – an apartment complex –  but no apartment number. Processes had to address one of the limitations of that technology – because the phone had no regular cell service, it was important to keep the child on the line, because we couldn’t call the phone back.

Lastly, effective People skills – creating an atmosphere of trust with the child, so much that he would open the apartment door to see if there were numbers on the outside of it – helped to keep him calm and cooperative, and also helped direct responders to the correct apartment. 

Mommy woke right up for the nice police officers. 

This type of call is indicative of many calls that 9-1-1 operators receive every day – “open line” calls caused by children playing with an old cell phone that doesn’t have service any more, that adults often give to the child as a toy – not realizing that every cell phone can call 9-1-1, so long as it has power and a signal.  

Dealing with these calls ties up critical human resources, and the sheer volume that are accidental can create an unreasonable burden on specialized personnel resources that are already difficult to hire and retain. That’s one of the reasons calls like these are tough – they can frustrate in the face of so many other ‘real’ emergency situations.

Tough Stuff, Out in the Open

As the New York Times reported last month, some of these calls can have tragic circumstances associated with them. Listening and keeping an open mind is part of the process of trying to distinguish between what is an open phone in a teenager’s pocket and the subtle signs of a critical incident. 

This is not the easiest thing to do – sometimes even more so when presented with a scenario that can appear to be mundane and routine, when in fact the individual circumstances can be anything but. 

9-1-1 personnel in Pierce County, Washington found that out the hard way in early February, when Josh Powell took his 2 sons from a social worker who was there to do a supervised visit. He attacked the boys with a hatchet, then blew his house up, killing his sons and himself.

In the days following this incident, it was reported that the 9-1-1 calltaker that spoke with the social worker may have not correctly understood the seriousness of the incident. This report was corroborated by the recordings and transcripts of two 9-1-1 calls, obtained and released by local media under the open records laws in Washington state.

In listening to the call, I could almost hear the wheels of repetitive experience grinding away at the foundation of an open mind and common sense. I thought what he might have thought – “more child custody drama”. This is an easy trap to fall into. 

Within a few days, numerous media outlets had picked up the story,  some for what they no doubt consider the sensational nature of when things go wrong – which appears to be MUCH more interesting to them than when they go right. Other media sources, including those dedicated to the trade, attempted to gain a greater understanding of the issues at hand, and to leverage what appears to be a very public, straight up, head-on approach to dealing with the situation. 

The Pierce County 9-1-1 agency issued a brief, yet eloquent statement that expressed sympathy for the family, respect for the employee involved, and a commitment to investigate fully and report back to the community. The 9-1-1 operator that received the call was interviewed on national TV – and took responsibility for the manner in which he handled the call. 

Even in situations where the system functions without problems, the ability of the public to hear exactly what transpired has the potential to educate, as well as reinforce the trust of citizens in their public safety system. The recent shooting at Chardon High School in northeast Ohio is such an example, with recordings of 9-1-1 calls during the incident released for public review.

Running Into the Wall

Take the short drive from Chardon into Pennsylvania, and you will find an entirely different atmosphere altogether.

As I’ve written previously, recordings of emergency communications are locked down by state law, unless the agency in control of them or a court determines that the public interest will be served by their release.

Unfortunately, we have a local equivalent of the Chardon incident to compare the response of our public institutions to. The March 8 shooting at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic was a tough call. Numerous calls came in to the 9-1-1 center. Would the public interest be served by the release of the recordings?

When government can unilaterally make that determination, the answer is too often no, as it is with the recordings of 9-1-1 calls from the Western Psych incident. The family of the lone innocent fatality, WPIC employee Michael Schaab, has taken to speaking out in the media, which could reasonably be attributed to UPMC’s failure to communicate with them in a meaningful way.

To its credit, the local media has done the best it can with what is being given them, including some informative and engaging reporting about the private descent of a promising young man who became the shooter, John Shick. 

This is why transparency and openness are so important in the majority of our interactions with government. When it isn’t present, you can really tell the difference.

Sunshine on my Shoulders..

This past week was designated as National Sunshine Week, described by its organizers as “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information”.  

It’s a given that information related to critical public safety responses can be controversial if not sensational, depending upon the level of ethics present among those involved as a victim, responder, or reporter. That fact, in and of itself, does not justify government from restricting or withholding access to this information by citizens or the media.

Members of the fourth estate have expressed frustration to me about this as well. Sewickley Patch Editor Larissa Dudkiewicz passed along her memories as a reporter for the Sharon (Pa.) Herald, covering crime stories in Ohio as much as in Pennsylvania:

“It was strange going to cover court hearings in Sharon or Farrell and not being able to photograph or record, and then go over to Ohio and be able to take pictures and long as you did not disrupt the hearing”. 

Lillian Thomas, Sunday Editor at the Post-Gazette, echoed the same concerns with the lack of open records, especially in major public safety incidents:

“Too often we have to establish relationships with others who can relay only pieces of information. This does not allow us to do the kind of job we could if we were able to evaluate the information on our own..compared with the experiences we have had when covering stories in places such as Ohio or Florida”.

Ms. Thomas also lamented what she termed “a long history” of a lack of openness on the part of government officials, as well as “no strong advocates in the Legislature” to assist those in Pennsylvania seeking to further the concept of open, transparent government here.

What Are We Afraid Of?

As a public safety communications professional for most of my adult life, I must accept the additional scrutiny as part of the critical nature of the job. Having practiced that trade in a state where public records were more readily accessible, that includes the possibility of hearing yourself on the evening news. This has not always been easy.

In an age where the weight of symbolism and reputation appears more important than the system and standards those symbols represent – when managing the message seems more important than managing the problem – how can we effectively deal with anything of significance if we are preoccupied with how it will be perceived more than than how effective we will be in responding to the issues at hand?

I fear that much of this reticence (at least in Pennsylvania) may have at its root the innate desire to maintain the status quo of organizations and other hierarchies that present a veneer of responsibility, but are largely hollow underneath that surface. One moderate impact to that shell, such as negative publicity over a response delay, and the entire structure is at risk. 

Are we too afraid of change, or too comfortable in the trappings of the past, to see that going forward is much more conducive to thriving in the future than standing still?

Great Power, Great Responsibility

In the end, all of this is not to say that everything that happens should be out in the open – by this I mean the personal tragedies that impact families just like mine and yours every day. Some may be worthy of news coverage, some not. That is the job of those empowered in both government and the media to determine what is in the public interest, without rules that can be arbitrary and capricious in both their interpretation and application.

Let’s take the case of young Howard Nicholson, late of McKeesport. Howard was on this earth for only three days last month when a family dog maimed his tiny body so severely that his injuries were incompatible with survival.

This was a tough call.

This incident has generated, and continues to generate, considerable public debate about the plight of dangerous dogs, irresponsible owners, and the ability of the state to do anything earthly about the consequences when the two wind up together. 

Knowing what I know, do I think that the 9-1-1 call would provide any greater measure of understanding for the general public? Would the manner in which these issues are addressed  be changed significantly, or would the recording just fuel those fringe aspects of what claims to be journalism on too many cable news channels? Would Nancy Grace be going live from Tube City? 

I don’t believe that the recording would help at all. However, that’s not my call. Nor should it be that of government to arbitrarily restrict access to these types of records. 

Responsible governance, just like responsible journalism, must possess a level of maturity and commitment to service that transcends fearmongering, sensationalism, and subterfuge.

Enjoy the nice weather. Be safe.

This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, Government, Local, Media, Public Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tough Calls and Sunshine

  1. Paxscientia says:

    You and I have had discussions about this on Twitter, but it's a complex subject for 140 characters.My perspective seems to be unique. The debate on 9-1-1 calls and call information seems to hinge on whether and to what degree the authorities may withhold information from the public and the media can force it to be released. I believe this is the wrong way to look at it. To me, the person MAKING the 9-1-1 call is the person whose privacy is violated if it is released to the media against their will. Government agencies have no expectation of privacy, but for 9-1-1 to remain effective, callers should have an expectation that their embarrassing or private call for emergency help won't be on the evening news. In cases where the caller dies, the next-of-kin should be given the "rights" to the call. The "owner" of the call, whether it be the caller or the next-of-kin, should be able to request any and all information about the call, including recordings.This would be the best of both worlds: it would avoid instances of the media airing 9-1-1 calls just because they're salacious or because the caller is a celebrity, regardless of the lack public interest in airing the call, but it would also allow public safety agencies to be held to account if they act against the public interest. If a caller feels that their call was mishandled or that the emergency response was insufficient, they can release the call to the media.In short, I think if I call 9-1-1, regardless of the reason, I shouldn't have to think about how my voice is going to sound on CNN.

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