Recording 911 Calls – Best Practice or BAND-AIDE?


Technology is an interesting animal at times. Quite often when the challenging problems can’t be solved with common technology, we tend to give up and compromise some of our entrusted standards and best practices just to begrudgingly accede a solution and “check the box”. When this happens in a life safety environment, we risk the health and safety of others that have no say in that decision. Quite often these decisions arise out of desperation when other solutions nay exist that actually solve the problem.

I think back to the problem exposed in the Kari Hunt tragedy. By now everyone is familiar with the fact that Kari’s daughter knew to dial 911, and in fact, tried four times. The reason she never reached 911 is that unknown was required for an outside line. But why what is the phone system programmed like that? Quite simply, a ‘9’ was the commonly used and excepted access code to reach outside trunk lines. The logic in telephone systems typically required that all phone numbers be ‘left-unique’, meaning that if I have extension 100, I cannot have extension 1001 or any other extension number that started with 100. Think about that for a second, the only way the system would know that someone is dialing 1001 instead of 100 is to wait after the second zero and listen for other digits. That creates an annoying delay of 3 to 4 seconds of the shorter numbers.

Now let’s look at 911. If nine is my access code for outside trunk line calls, 911 by itself would conflict with other numbers that were being dialed for outside calls. It was because of this that 911 was not often programmed in the MLTS. So for many years, the problem of being able to direct-dial 911 without an access code was just ignored. It wasn’t until Kari was murdered in December 2013, and the 4 ½ year fight that Kari’s father Hank Hunt took on, did a law get put in place that changed all this.


Now let’s look at monitoring 911 calls, and why we do this. Most vendors don’t support this bad practice for the obvious legal ramifications and privacy violation concerns raised by the practice, but others do and justify it this way. The most common explanation is, “enterprises need to listen to the call so they understand where the emergency is taking place”. This is absolutely critical, however, listening to the phone call may not be the best way to understand where the call is coming from. What is needed is descriptive station identification and location detection, so that you’re not relying on someone speaking their location to understand where the call is coming from. Presenting that information to an on-site response desk is extremely valuable, and this is why the on-site notification was part of Kari’s law from the beginning. Another common excuse is that enterprises need to understand what the emergency is, so they can respond accordingly. Again, this is a weak justification, as I have never seen multiple response teams dedicated and assigned to an emergency based on what is happening. If first responders even exist in the enterprise, they are typically trained to deal with multiple types of situations and are there as a stopgap to enable a fast and efficient response from emergency services. Collecting and adding in additional information from video cameras, IoT sensors, and other information available in the enterprise networks can likely provide a better operational and situational awareness picture of the incident. Then, what about HIPPA, and general privacy concerns? Are the people listening to these potentially very personal and sensitive conversations properly vetted and trained, and what about that information leaking externally? That could put the enterprise at a significant disadvantage in a lawsuit while providing very little value in improving the situation or response. Finally, I constantly hear, “I want to record all of the calls to protect myself”. Not only does it raise the same red flags as the other concerns do, specifically, but recording also takes it even a step further where it violates the federal wiretap law, especially in states that require all parties to acknowledge and accept the fact that they may be recorded. While that information is easily collected from employees, it is not collected from guests in the building, nor is it collected from the 911 call taker that is answering the call. Those are all potential parties on the line. Additionally, the PSAP records every call into the center, so if there was ever a concern over the contents of a 911 call, that information is available from a vetted and trusted resource, where there are things like chain of custody safeguard that it hasn’t been tampered with.


In closing, there are good solutions that exist out there by reputable vendors that take the problem seriously and solve the issue. Other solutions are based on hype, and while seemingly correct the issues at hand, they just don’t follow current and modern best practices and protocols. If you are looking at any solution that you are not an expert in, Caveat emptor. Make sure that the person who is explaining the solution to you is a reputable one and not just creating a bunch of hype. As the deadlines for RAY BAUM’S Act loom right around the corner, remember this is a federal compliance issue and to make sure your remediation is high on your list of to do’s.

Next week I will publish my second in a series of Next GENERATION 911 FutureMakers™. This series is dedicated to those individuals in our industry, that not only contribute to the technology in use today but take that extra step to inspire the leaders of tomorrow. I’ll be publishing a FutureMakers™ episode every two weeks, with my own blogs and podcasts on the opposite weeks.


Last week we kicked off the series with Jeremy Demar, the 911 Executive Director at Mountain Valley Emergency Communications here in New Jersey. Next week will be an interview with Tracy Eldridge from RapidSOS.

Take care and stay well.

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911
Check out my Blogs on http://Fletch.TV

One comment

  1. Most PSAPs and employers aren’t covered entities under HIPAA In Washington where I live conversations with known on duty public employees aren’t considered private for the state’s wiretapping law. Depending on state law 911 audio might be exempt from public records act disclosure. In my area where 911 audio is a public record, speed of disclosure varies widely. I used to be able to auto record my 911 calls but think Android made a breaking change because it stopped working. When I used RingCentral all of my calls were recorded with auto warning on inbound/outbound which is all needed in Washington to record private conversations not actual consent. If I were running an organization I would record 911 audio so I didn’t have to wait for a records request to be fulfilled. For example, Seattle Police (primary PSAP for Seattle) has 2,000+ open requests. Also audio for active investigations is exempt in Washington.


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