Protecting 9-1-1 DataBase Confidentiality

by Colonel Ernest E.Ricci

On August 5, 1996, Rhode Island Governor LincolnAlmond signed into law two legislative bills which will have aprofound effect upon the status of 9-1-1 caller privacy.

In reality, the concern for 9-1-1 caller privacy is not uniqueto the new legislation. The original 9-1-1 Emergency TelephoneNumber Act of 1986 contained language which prohibiteddissemination of information contained in the 9-1-1 data base.The problem with the enabling language was that it contained twosections which could be variously interpreted. For example, thesection which protected 9-1-1 data base information from allpurposes except “…handling emergency calls” defineddata base information as the names, addresses, and telephonesubscribers whose listing are not published. One could reasonablyconclude that those 9-1-1 callers whose listings are publishedwere not protected by the confidentiality section of the statute.Following that reasoning, 9-1-1 voice recordings and printed dataassociated with listed telephone subscribers fell under the”segregable portion” of the confidentiality section andwas public information.

In a proceeding section of the same legislation, reference todata base information is all encompassing: “Dissemination ofthe information contained in the data base for other thanemergency purposes is prohibited.” That section, one couldargue, embraces all information contained in the 9-1-1 data base.

In an effort to clear the ambiguity from the legislation andto provide for a standard process for addressing the status of9-1-1 voice tape recordings and computer printouts, a new sectionand amended language was inserted in the 9-1-1 EmergencyTelephone Number Act during the 1996 session of the Rhode IslandGeneral Assembly.

With few exceptions, Rhode Island law now clearly prohibitspublic disclosure of the contents of any 9-1-1 voice recording,and any 9-1-1 call processing record, a move which opponentsconclude will build a wall of secrecy around 9-1-1 activities andstifle public accountability.

Supporters of the confidentiality legislation see itdifferently. They advocate that 9-1-1 accountability is not theissue; that accountability was introduced by opponents as adiversion, a tactic to confuse and rally the public, whilemasking the real issue which is 9-1-1 caller privacy.

9-1-1 is without question a public agency responsible to thepublic for its activities; questions surrounding 9-1-1 personnelperformance, policies, procedures, etc., will continue to bepublic information. The new law only protects the caller and thecaller’s preference for, or expectation of, privacy when he/shedials 9-1-1. If the caller chooses to make his/her 9-1-1 call apublic issue, the recording of that call will be released. TheRhode Island 9-1-1 agency, which serves the state from onecentral PSAP and uses the transfer method, will release a voicetape copy of the call in question to the caller “…whosevoice is recorded” when the request is made in writing. Thatcaller may then distribute the recording as he or she pleases.

The law is so protective of the 9-1-1 caller’s privacy thatemergency service providers who are given access to 9-1-1 callerinformation can use it “on a call-by-call basis only for thepurpose of handling emergency calls…” and for publicsafety purposes, including training.

Emergency service suppliers, (in Rhode Island, secondarypublic safety answering points or PSAPs), are required tomaintain the confidentiality of all calls transferred and can usethe information contained in each call for the purposesprescribed by law. Secondary PSAPs cannot release 9-1-1 callerinformation to the public.
As the provider of the confidential information, the 9-1-1primary PSAP in Rhode Island will process all requests forrelease of 9-1-1 caller information and will do so as provided bylaw – a law most feel will remove the barriers to greater use ofthe 9-1-1 system in Rhode Island. Witnesses who failed to reportcriminal activity because they did not wish to have theiridentity disclosed (enhanced 9-1-1 automatically identifies thename, address and telephone number of the telephonesubscriber-not necessarily the caller) can now do so without fearof unwanted publicity, reprisals, etc.

The providers of 9-1-1 emergency services fully understandthat 9-1-1 activities will always attract a high degree of publicscrutiny due in no small part to the fact that 9-1-1 activitiesaffect vital public needs. They also realize that intense publicscrutiny is as vital to the motivation and maintenance of high9-1-1 performance standards as 9-1-1 performance is vital to thesafety of the public it serves. Those checks and balances willremain intact.

Colonel Ernest Ricci is executive director of the E9-1-1Emergency Telephone System in North Providence, Rhode Island.