911 calls should not be secret

A Delaware County lawmaker has proposed a bill that would prohibit the release of identifying information for individuals calling 911 – such as a caller’s name, phone number and address – without a court order.

Currently, this type of information is not normally public in Pennsylvania, but local officials can release it if they decide the information is in the public’s interest.

And they’ve sometimes done that.

In 2006, Blair County leaders released 911 call information, including times and locations, while investigating a delayed response to a vehicle crash resulting in injuries to pedestrian Orville Crawford, which led to Crawford’s death.

Commissioners disciplined those involved and reacted with stronger policies.

In 2008, Bucks County leaders acknowledged the mishandling of a 911 call from Brenda Orr of Doylestown. Immobilized by multiple sclerosis, the 53-year-old woman was trapped in a burning bed when she dialed 911 for help.

Records show it took 28 seconds for a Bucks County dispatcher to answer Orr’s call, then the dispatcher put Orr on hold. An additional 26 seconds passed before a second dispatcher picked up Orr’s call and heard her scream about her bed being fully enflamed.

While faster action may not have saved Orr, the details of what happened in the last moments of her life were critical factors in the adoption of new dispatching policies.

In both instances, identifying information from 911 records played a role in helping the public understand what happened and the need for improvements.

But if Rep. Joe Hackett has his way, the public will be kept in the dark about such emergencies because Hackett wants all identifying information to remain secret, unless a court order calls for its release.

Hackett’s most recent bill was put together after a recent Commonwealth Court ruling required York County to provide destination addresses or cross-street information with its 911 time response logs.

“The information recorded during 911 calls can often contain very sensitive details, that if released to the public, could pose a grave danger to callers and victims,” Hackett stated in a memo about his bill.

While that may sometimes be the case, requiring a court order for the release of all identifying information will likely put the public in grave danger.

In the interest of public safety, the public should know where emergency responders are going and how quickly or slowly they are responding. That kind of information makes a difference to anyone who has wondered: How fast would help come if I’m placing a 911 call?

Pennsylvania is among the minority of states in our nation where leaders refuse to release 911 call recordings.

Most states, with exceptions for privacy reasons or to protect a police investigation, consider 911 calls to be public record and thus, they release recordings and identify information.

With our state’s current stance, there is no need for additional restrictions.