911 bill threatens public’s right to know

Legislative efforts to limit the public’s access to information often begin with good intentions, and that appears to be the case with Pennsylvania House Bill 1310.

The bill, which the Veteran’s Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee unanimously sent to the full Senate last week, would prohibit the release of “identifying information” from 911 calls, including the name, telephone number and location.

The bill is meant to protect the privacy of 911 callers and crime and abuse victims. A closer look at the relevant laws regulating 911 data, however, shows House Bill 1310 to be both unnecessary and a hindrance to assessing the effectiveness of local emergency services.

As the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association points out, the state Right to Know Law already recognizes and accounts for much of the bill’s intent. The law protects most 911 records, except when an agency or court finds that the public interest in disclosure outweighs privacy concerns. That’s a reasonable balance.

But the law makes “time response logs” public, meaning records that show the time and location of 911 calls along with the emergency response. That provision of the law was affirmed by the state Commonwealth Court in 2011.

That’s where House Bill 1310, introduced by state Rep. Maria Donatucci, a Philadelphia Democrat, seeks to upset the balance between the public interest and privacy. It also doesn’t account for the fact that such information is available in other forms and is routinely thrust into the public domain via the interplay of police scanners and social media.

So start with recognition that much of what the bill seeks is redundant and wouldn’t really protect anyone. Then move on to the fact that it would make it much harder to measure the effectiveness of emergency response agencies in protecting the public.

The bill was introduced after the York Daily Record sought locations of 911 calls in order to assess the response times of emergency service personnel. That’s clearly in the public interest, but it’s hard to measure how efficiently emergency units respond to calls if you don’t know when and where they’re sent or when they get there.

Remember also that response logs are only available after the fact. Preventing their release does nothing to improve safety for crime victims or the public.

“Creating a blanket exemption for ‘identifying information,' as provided by this bill, is both unnecessary and overbroad,” the NewsMedia Association said in its briefing on the issue. “It would eliminate any public oversight of the emergency response system and significantly undervalue the important public policy supporting disclosure of this basic information.”

The above editorial appeared in the Erie Times-News.