City clamps down on 911 info, drags feet on public records requests
9 On Your Side viewers are demanding answers
Notes by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director
Two things are apparent about the problems the city of Tucson has been experiencing with its 911 operations center. One, something definitely is going on. Two, the city does not want you to know about it.
The public would not, in fact, have known about any of the problems -- which include dropped calls, missing information on screen, overworked staffers falling asleep on the job, and so on -- had courageous employees not taken steps to prevent these issues from being swept under the rug. The problems first came to light when some of the dispatchers and operators contacted councilman Steve Kozachik, who then went public with the issue. Other problems have come to light through an ongoing 9 On Your Side Investigation.
The official response? According to one 9 On Your Side source, the city has issued two memos since July ordering staffers not to discuss any of these issues with the public. It fired one employee who tapped into a confidential database in order to print out a dispatch report as part of his effort to expose these problems. The 911 software vendor, Qwest, was finally forced to admit to 9 On Your Side that there had been some problems on installation, but then went on to claim that those problems had been resolved. City managers and supervisors told the city council and the public that safety was never compromised.
Horse hooey. 9 On Your Side's ongoing investigation has dug up facts showing that the problems certainly have affected the ability of the dispatch center to handle calls promptly and efficiently for the past several weeks. Those problems played a role (whether it was a major role or a minor role is subject to debate) in a delayed response where a 10 year old girl ultimately died from a respiratory crisis -- the exact kind of emergency in which seconds matter.
If there are no safety problems here -- why is the city so determined to control the release of information? Why is it dragging its feet on releasing documents that belong to the public in the first place?
On July 19 KGUN9 News filed its first public record request to obtain information from the city. We got nothing. Only after we followed up two weeks later with a strongly worded demand for a response did we get any documents at all. A short time later we learned that the city had failed to turn over a thick stack of key documents consisting of daily trouble reports. So, we filed a follow up request to get those documents, which should have been turned over to us in the first place. That request went in on August 5. Another two weeks went by. Having received nothing, we filed a follow-up yesterday. The city has not acted.
At best, this is irresponsible foot dragging. At worst, it's a nose-thumb at the state's public records law. Either way, it displays a casual disregard for the public's right to know.
One of the beautiful things that tends to happen in our American democracy is that when those in power attempt to keep the facts from the public, and to downplay those facts that do get revealed despite their best efforts, some courageous citizens and public employees will take action. That has happened in this case. Over the past few weeks, 9 On Your Side has received emails, documents, trouble logs, and even a photograph, slipped to us anonymously "over the transom." The materials document in precise detail a series of problems with the 911 system and with staff management. The most recent anonymous arrival: those very trouble reports 9 On Your Side specifically requested from the city on August 5. KGUN9's Claire Doan reported on those documents on Friday.
In addition to those anonymous contributors, a few days ago several dispatchers and operators stepped forward to speak publicly on these issues, in direct violation of city orders. Citing state whistleblower laws, Councilman Steve Kozachik warned the city against retaliation. But it's an open question as to whether those whistleblower laws apply in this case. They certainly didn't help Michael LaFond, the 911 operator canned by the city last month for bootlegging his own investigation in an attempt to raise a red flag about these problems. Other employees who dared to violate orders for the purpose of informing the public about an urgent matter of public safety could pay the same price.
The Tucson fire chief, into whose lap the city has now dumped this whole steaming mess, has promised more transparency going forward. If he really means that, the first thing he'll do is lift that gag order. The public has a right to know whether calls for help from those in distress will get a prompt and efficient answer.
9OYS viewers have been speaking out on this issue loudly and clearly. KGUN9 News has run two "Question of the Day" web polls about these matters. In both of them, the majority of viewers said the city should not be clamping down on the flow of information and should not have fired an employee who tried to sound a warning.
Feedback to KGUN9 News and to our KGUN9 News Facebook page has also been vocal -- and as is always the case, viewers are not unanimous in their feelings. But if even one viewer feels the public deserves more information - isn't that a message our elected and appointed officials should note? In this case, there is certainly more than one viewer demanding answers. They're in the majority.
Below is a sampling of that feedback. Also, links to related stories including our special 9 On Your Side coverage section for this issue are at upper left, along with links to KGUN9's three public records requests filed so far.
From Fred Stout: "Confidential is confidential. No one without authority should tap into the files without consequences."
From Joy Griffo Thomas: "I've worked in a lot of places where you just don't speak to the press or others. Personally I feel if the employees were asked to keep it private then they should have. Since they did not then they shouldn't be surprised to be fired."
From William Nutt: "I agree with Fred but the motivation, IMO, was different than just snooping. They took a chance to bring to light the flaws that plaque the system. If they didn't, we would ALL continue to be put at risk. Hopefully, the Whistle blower laws can cover them."
From David Rucker: "Since people's lives are at stake. The city's rules be damned."
From Lori Critser Weaver: "There are other ways for the employee to 'blow the whistle' without snooping. Maybe the family of the dead 10 year old girl, didn't want their child to be the 'example.'"
From Mike Shaw: "When public safety is concerned those who bring problems to light should be applauded. If supervisors were intent on blaming operators the problem would never get fixed and lives would continue to be placed at risk. Shame on the city for trying to intimidate employees who are trying to do their jobs. SAVE LIVES!"
From Tonya Haymore: "There are supposedly laws to protect whistleblowers. If the dispatcher though broke the law by accessing info illegally then he should be fired for HIPPA violations but he did potentially save lives by bringing the story to the limelight. I wonder though if the justifiable firing for the HIPPA violations is a stretch of the truth and just an easy out for them firing him."
From Andrea Zinn: "It is still a breach of confidential patient information, no matter what the intentions."
From Michael James: "I have worked too for companies that say you can never talk to the media. But if these people don't say anything, no one will. The city isn't doing anything about it."
From Heather Bringe: "Why can't people admit there is/was a problem? Everyone already knows the truth anyways just admit it and fix it!"
From "Judyann:" "The City Council should be accountable for everything they do. If they bought a faulty 911 system, they shouldn't blame the 911 operators. Think the 911 operator should get his job back."
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Update: On Monday August 22, the City of Tucson finally provided to KGUN9 News the discrepancy reports in question.