The state Senate has amended a controversial bill that seeks to protect the privacy rights of 911 callers in Pennsylvania. Critics say an earlier version of the bill would have impeded the public’s ability to gauge the effectiveness of emergency responders.
HB 1310 passed unanimously in the state House in October. But some of its language was amended, and the revised bill was passed May 11 in the state Senate. On May 16, the amended bill was referred to the state House Rules Committee, where legislators must decide whether to concur with the state Senate’s amended language.
The original version prevented 911 call centers from releasing any information contained in 911 time-response logs that could identify a 911 caller. In Philadelphia, 911 time-response logs are known as computer-assisted dispatch records.
Critics expressed concern that 911 call centers would interpret the bill broadly and withhold all information contained in time-response logs.
The amended bill seeks to protect the identity of 911 callers by blocking the caller’s exact address. But it allows 911 call centers to release the nearest intersection, mile marker or “street block” of the incident.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, along with 23 news outlets across the state, opposed the bill’s earlier version.
According to the association, the earlier version “would have prohibited the release of all names, addresses and locations of 911 calls, preventing any way to measure the speed or effectiveness of public emergency response.”
The association notes that, with the amended bill, “there will be circumstances in which specific identifying information of a 911 caller may be withheld, including the precise street address of a caller, victim or witness.” The amended bill remained pending in the state House Rules Committee at presstime.
Paula Knudsen, legislative counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, expressed mixed feelings about the amended bill.
“We believe the bill is unnecessary,” Knudsen told PGN. “But the amendment is an improvement.”
She said the association will continue to monitor the situation.
The amendment was introduced by state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny), a former police officer.
“The senator believes the amendment he offered provides a good balance between privacy rights of 911 callers and news-gathering needs of the media,” said Nathan P. Silcox, an aide to Vulakovich.
Silcox added: “The senator was in communication with the state Office of Open Records and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association before the amendment was adopted.”
Erik Arneson, the OOR’s executive director, said he worked with Vulakovich’s office to help facilitate the amendment.
“I think the current version of the bill strikes an appropriate balance between protecting 911 callers and providing enough information to allow the public to effectively evaluate the response times of emergency services,” Arneson told PGN.