Share this article

print logo

Legislature needs to update statute to provide public access to all 911 calls

It is time that the law governing the release of 911 emergency calls catches up with today’s technology, specifically in legislatively recognizing the ubiquity of cellphones.

Doing so could help clear up disagreements over dispatcher professionalism and response times. It might help settle who is correct in a Hamburg situation.

Eddie Ernst contends that when he called 911 last month about his 69-year-old mother, he received a startlingly flip response from the dispatcher. His mother, he said, had suffered a heart attack. The dispatcher questioned how he could know. His mother died a short time later.

That is Ernst’s version. Hamburg emergency officials have another story. One of timeliness and professionalism aimed at getting the most information.

Listening to the 911 call would clear all doubt. Except the public cannot hear the tape because police are not allowed to release it, barring a subpoena.

A state law prohibits counties from making public recordings of 911 calls routed through a county’s 911 system. As News staff reporter Aaron Besecker wrote, in Erie County, cellphone calls to 911 are answered by the county system and directed to emergency dispatchers in the appropriate municipality.

Had the call 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 (FOIL).

There is a huge discrepancy between what has been set in law – seemingly cemented – and today’s reality in which just about everybody uses cellphones, and almost exclusively. Most people would not think twice about using a cellphone in an emergency, even if they have a landline within reach.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, described it as a “lousy” provision of the law and has asked for its repeal. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has included in his proposed budget some provisions that would alter the state’s FOIL. One proposal would repeal the arcane section – 308(4) that prohibits disclosure.

Last year, State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, introduced a bill that would have repealed that section of the law but unfortunately, the proposal never made it out of committee.

It’s too bad. Both efforts should gain consideration. It is time to dump an arcane law in favor of one that actually reflects the realities of the 21st century and that could also help to improve services paid for by taxpayers.