Share this article

print logo

Is law prohibiting counties from releasing 911 calls to the public a problem?

Eddie Ernst called 911 last month after he found his 69-year-old mother suffering a heart attack. Police, volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews responded, but Jane Ernst died a short time later.

In the wake of his mother’s death, Eddie Ernst questions how long the ambulance took to show up and how the dispatcher handled the phone call. Had the call been handled better, Ernst insists, his mom would still be alive.

Emergency officials in Hamburg assert that the dispatcher properly handled the call in the early morning hours of Feb. 21, and that the dispatcher was just trying to get basic but important information from Ernst.

There are two versions of what happened, and a definitive way to find out who’s right would be to listen to the 911 call.

But the public doesn’t have the chance to hear that tape because police can’t release it, barring a subpoena. A state law prohibits counties from making public recordings of 911 calls routed through a county’s 911 system.

And in Erie County, cellphone calls to 911 are answered by the county system and directed to emergency dispatchers in the appropriate municipality.

Had the circumstances been slightly different, the public might be able to learn what exactly occurred in Ernst’s situation.

In this case, if the 911 call had come from a landline and gone directly to the municipality, the 911 recording would be considered subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

But as the law stands and based on how this situation played out, it appears unlikely the public will be able to know for sure in this case.

“We think it’s a lousy provision of law. We’ve asked for its repeal,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government.

Jane Ernst had just come home Feb. 20 because she suffered a broken leg while in Florida. Later that night, at about 2 a.m., Eddie Ernst went to check on his mom, who was staying at his home as they prepared to go to a physical rehabilitation center.

She told him she wasn’t feeling well. She was breathing heavily and sweating profusely.

Eddie Ernst called 911 from a cellphone and said he encountered a dispatcher who he said asked him why he was calling 911 if he needed an ambulance.

“He just didn’t seem concerned about anything,” Ernst said. “Then he was like, ‘How do you know she is having a heart attack?’  ”

Ernst, who said he called 911 a second time because of his concerns about the situation, said it was 15 minutes before any emergency personnel arrived, and the first ones to arrive were police officers. He said the ambulance arrived 15 minutes after that.

But a police log of the call indicates the first officers arrived at the Waterview Parkway home six minutes after they were dispatched.

Both police records and Rural/Metro Medical Services ambulance records show the ambulance arrived at the home 10 minutes after the 911 call, said Thomas E. Taylor, senior public safety dispatcher in Hamburg.

The police log does not show the specific time an ambulance arrived at the home. An entry from 3:05 a.m. describes that patrol officers began treating Jane Ernst before ambulance personnel and firefighters arrived. That also was the time the officers were cleared from the call, according to the report.

When police arrived, Ernst said, officers told him the call was being upgraded to a “hot call,” meaning it was more dire than originally pegged and required a more serious emergency response.

Taylor said while he cannot speak to exactly what officers said at the scene, once the dispatcher determined what was happening, he took the appropriate action and there was no delay in sending an ambulance.

Ernst brought his concerns to Taylor a couple days after his mother died.

As with many cases, medical emergencies are stressful for those involved and those that result in death can be difficult, especially on family members, Taylor said.

“It’s a difficult situation to be in,” he said.

Sometimes in such situations, people perceive time moving more slowly than it actually is, Taylor said. And dispatchers are trained to try to obtain specific information from 911 callers in order to determine what type of response is required.

“There are times we have to be blunt,” he said. “They may take that as being rude.”

Ernst tried to get the town to release the recording of the 911 call. His request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law was denied. Town officials cited the section of state law that prohibits disclosure. Section 308(4) of county law reads as follows:

“Records, in whatever form they may be kept, of calls made to a municipality’s E911 system shall not be made available to or obtained by any entity or person, other than that municipality’s public safety agency, another government agency or body, or a private entity or a person providing medical, ambulance or other emergency services, and shall not be utilized for any commercial purpose other than the provision of emergency services.”

Freeman, the open government advocate, said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has included in his proposed budget some provisions that would alter the state’s Freedom of Information Law. One proposal would repeal section 308(4), Freeman said.

Last year, State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, introduced a bill that would have also repealed that section of law. The proposal never made it out of committee, according to State Senate records.