A bill that got mired in this year’s session of the state General Assembly could be resurrected next year and would make emergency 911 calls secret. It’s horrible legislation and would remove a major tool from journalists who bring transparency and accountability to first responders.
State Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, is the author of HB0335. A former emergency medical technician, he was motivated by privacy concerns of those who call 911 during some of the worst times of their lives.
But when asked by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government to name one instance where the news media has been abusive with 911 records, which currently are open to the public, Tillis had no answer, says TCOG Executive Director Deborah Fisher.
“It’s fixing a problem that hasn’t shown up in Tennessee,” Fisher said in a telephone interview. “The main thing I tried to get across to legislators is that 911 calls are important in reporting on public-interest things.”
For example, without 911 tapes, we never would have known how the Gatlinburg wildfire outran firefighters and overwhelmed first responders. Reporting by the Knoxville News Sentinel on the fire found hydrant failures and lack of water; dispatcher confusion, including residents ordered to stay put instead of to flee the fire; the chaotic evacuation routes; and the failure to get downtown Gatlinburg sirens activated.
Former News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy noted in a column that 911 systems are funded by a tax added to cellphone bills; the records produced by those calls are critical public records that hold emergency responders accountable — for poor response times, errant routing of resources and accidents caused by law enforcement vehicles, among many other things.
The proposed legislation, and its companion SB0386, would designate that all 911 calls, recordings and transmissions as confidential except for certain purposes or unless a recorded caller consented to the release of such records. As if any caller would ever do that.
Tillis’ bill is another attack on government and law enforcement transparency. Could it be that Tillis is responding to an acquaintance possibly embarrassed when a 911 call was revealed? Yet one person’s privacy should not negate the community’s need and
right to know what’s going on with tax-funded
HB0335 was taken off notice for the calendar in the Public Service & Employees Subcommittee on March 27, effectively killing it, although Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, concedes the bill could rear its ugly head during the next session. SB0386, meanwhile, was assigned on April 8 to the General Subcommittee of the Senate State & Local Government Committee.
Both bills should die on the vine.
“I would err on the side of the media ... because it would jeopardize transparency of law enforcement and first responders,” Ramsey said. “Transparency, in my opinion, on oversight of first responders outweighs inappropriate disclosures” that could embarrass citizens.
Rep. Jerome Moon, R-Maryville, the former publisher of The Daily Times, understandably opposes the legislation and says “that bill’s going nowhere. Those records have got to be left open.” Otherwise, he said by way of example, the media could never learn about the problem of myriad false 911 calls and then report on them.
State Sen. Art Swann, R-Alcoa, agreed the bill is “not going anywhere” and said he could only support it in extremely limited circumstances.
We applaud all three members of our local legislative delegation and urge them to remain steadfast against any further erosion of Tennessee’s public records laws, which already are considered weak by other states’ standards. In fact, the number of public records exemptions in Tennessee reached 583 after this past legislative session.
Lawmakers who exempt public records are hiding something. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
A complete list of how all states treat 911 calls is here: https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/2012/07/18/911-recordings-transcripts-state-statutes/.