On Emergency Calls

In the US and Canada, 9-1-1 is an emergency response number. Similar system also occur throughout the world, such as 000 (Australia), 100 (India, Israel), 112 (European Union, Hong Kong, and some non-EU countries), 113 (Norway), 117 (Philippines), 133 (Chile), 155 (Turkey), 999 (UK), and there are others.

In the US, calls to the 9-1-1 center are part of the public record – therefore, recorded calls may become part of a news report. Whether on a large cable/satellite network, a national network, or the local news, I’ve never thought much about these calls beyond hearing the initial account …. well, not until last month.

What you are about to read is simply the basic facts about the event – and by no means will I go into more details about the incident – thus keep in mind, my point in this post is regarding emergency calls being part of a news story.

A friend of mine was sitting in a chair one evening. His wife was sleeping, my wife received a Facebook comment from him, and within an hour, shots from outside his house killed him. His wife found him in the chair, thus called 9-1-1.

The next day, the local news included that emergency call as an update to their story. Hearing a person’s voice that I know well describing her discovery troubled me. Yes, this was my first encounter of knowing the people involved in a 9-1-1 call that made the news. Throughout my 60 years, I’ve had people close to me die of a wide range of ages – some unexpectedly, some from prolonged illness. – from heart attacks, cancer, accidents, and others – but never murder.

Nonetheless, hearing her voice made me think about 9-1-1 calls. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a wonderful service – but should emergency call center recordings remain private for a designated number of days as 30 or 60? What’s your opinion?

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94 thoughts on “On Emergency Calls

  1. Hmm, I’m not sure I have an answer on this one, Frank, but I can only imagine how surreal and disturbing that must have been to hear that 911 call on the television. Sorry to hear about your friend. I hope his wife is coping okay.

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    • Carrie,
      Surreal is a good word for when we heard the call. Thanks for asking about her. She’s strong, and appreciates the support of the people around her … but she’s dealing with important unknown questions.

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  2. Oh Frank, how devastating. I think that the public’s fascination with this stuff is sick. Horrible. What good does hearing it do for anyone.

    Like Carrie, I’m sending my wishes to the man’s wife and to you and your wife, for the loss of your friend in such a tragic way.

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    • Elyse,
      In this case, the shooter is still at large, so investigators want info from the public. However, the 9-1-1 call doesn’t provide that.

      Thanks for thinking of her. She’s strong, but a loss is a loss.

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  3. My condolences to your friend–as others are saying, I hope she is coping okay. On the issue you raise, i had not thought about it before. I would hope the call would not be released immediately, but not sure what the amount of time should be. In tihs case, with a trial coming eventually I would hope, until then? What a haunting way to learn about this tragedy. This incident brings to mind the journalistic question, just because we can share some information, should we?

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    • Patti,
      The call was not immediately released. My memory tells me that we heard the recording the following day – so many people already knew, but I imagine someone learned about it on the news.

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  4. Honestly, Frank, I don’t think the 911 calls should be available to public record and news broadcasters. It’s sensationalism at its worst. The policy of withholding information until next-of-kin is notified is an important one, but it does not take into account friends, colleagues, church members, extended family, etc. I can only imagine how it must have felt to hear the recording of your friend’s wife’s 911 call. I think those recordings should be withheld until after the trial and a disclaimer should be offered by news reports to give you the choice as to whether to listen or not…

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    • Cathy,
      In our case, the church issued an email within hours … so we were already stunned … and if I correctly recall, we heard the call about 36 hours later. Nonetheless, you point is well taken because I imagine someone found out that way.

      In this case, the police were still seeking information. Then again, there’s nothing in that 911 call other than allowing people to point the finger at her.

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  5. Well Frank to be honest, I don’t think they should be of public record… I think these calls should only see the light of day in a court case if need be as part of the evidence required… a person in a state of shock and distress is not a public record as far as I’m concerned… what about family members not notified as yet.. or friends that here a distress message telling them of the demise of a fellow person… sorry mate I don’t think these calls are a matter for public record, another typical news mongering move on behalf of some to make sales…

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    • Bulldog,
      I appreciate your take on this because of side of me is right with you. Here, with 9-1-1 being a public service, it is naturally part of the public record … but that does not mean it can’t be delayed. After all, political offices delay their records all the time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!!

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        • Well … The is more protection at the presidential level than at the local level. On the other hand, I’ll admit my inability to quote the laws. However, we have “Sunshine Laws” that allow access to public records … and people/groups like to challenge public orgs for access to all records … however, the public orgs do have some privacy in certain matters. OK .. I probably did a good job of not answering. 😉

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  6. You will probably find this hard to believe, Frank, but I have known four murder victims. It’s chilling and terrifying, and watching the survivors try to go on with their lives is painful in a long protracted season that never ends. I’m so tremendously sorry, really heartbroken, for your loss. The incident as you describe it is just awful. i’m also very sorry you heard the 9-1-1 tapes. That’s something I’ve been spared, but I have had the same thoughts as you share them. Every time I hear one of the emergency recordings I think of the survivors and how it impacts them. I really could weep. There is so much heartache sometimes it’s hard to fathom!

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    • Debra,
      OMG … Four!!! Incredible and horrible. You so know the pain and how it affects others. Although this case is strange, I still can’t convince myself that the 9-1-1 call was newsworthy. Thanks for sharing your story!

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  7. I’m so sorry to hear this. I don’t think that in general it adds anything to the news story except to sensationalise it. The only time I could see some justification for it, possibly, is if the police are appealing for the public to come forward with any information they might have, and maybe they’re hoping the sounds of a distraught 911 call might play on people’s consciousnesses and encourage them to come forward. Even then it’s a bit dubious, but at least I could understand a motive there. I’m trying to think about here in the UK, it’s very rare for a 999 recording to be played on the news, it happens very occasionally, but I’m not sure what the rules are around doing that here.

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    • Vanessa,
      In this case, the police were (and still are) seeking more information. On the other hand, I’m not convinced (in this case) that the 9-1-1 call provides any hints/clues/information for the police. I also find it interesting that 999 calls generally don’t make the news in the UK … and as you stated, the question/answer lies around the rules. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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  8. Oh Frank, I am so sorry. For your friend, for his loss. For his family, for their terrible loss. For you and your loss. The list goes on, the ripple affect of murder, it spreads in horrible circles. I am so sorry.

    The release of 9-1-1 calls is sensationalism at its very worst. There is no purpose. While I might understand this in cases where specific information is contained within the call that would assist the police in the capture of an offender, even in this case a transcript of that portion of the call can be released not the call itself.

    In high-profile cases, I get it. I understand it and family may agree to releasing all this information. I still think it is wrong. It creates so much pain.

    Yes, it is a matter of public record. So what, some things are also a matter of respect. I think this is one of them.

    Again, I am so sorry.

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    • Val,
      Now why did I know you would have a thorough response? 😉 Honestly, I was anxious to see your thoughts on this one. The context was the seeking more information for the police. However, I can’t see how the call itself would help anyone in the public. Thanks for your kind words.

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  9. Tough one, Frank. Sorry to hear about your friend, there’s no question that the media can be excessive and insensitive when it comes to spinning a story. I must confess, it seems fair to keep them as a public record… couldn’t there be a limitation on public broadcast with the information still being allowed to be publicly accessed? Some sort of emergency call intellectual property protection act? Just spit-balling here.

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    • Ryan,
      Welcome first-time commenter! … and thanks for your kind words. I can see a fine line between public records and protection. After all, it is a public agency. I’ve got the feeling that not being able to broadcast public information could cause the most angst, thus why I wonder about a short time before release. By then, the news cycle passes the event. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  10. So sorry for your loss, Frank, but I’m glad your friend’s wife has you and your wife to help comfort her.

    There are times where releasing the 911 call is in the public interest, but I think more often, it’s broadcast in prurient interest.

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    • Guapo,
      To me, your closing hits the nail on the head. If it is truly in the public interest, absolutely … but I just can’t see it in this case.

      Meanwhile, our friend is strong and she has many good friends and family standing with her. … and yes, we will continue to do so.

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  11. I was stunned when you first told me about your connection with the shooting death of your friend. I mourn and pray for him and his family.

    I was surprised and shocked when I heard the 9-1-1 tape on the radio soon after the shooting (I wasn’t aware of your connection at the time). My first thought as I heard the tape was that the broadcasting of what I assumed was a police record amounted to pure media sensationalism and that it was possibly illegal.

    After reading your post and the comments from your readers, I’m convinced that this issue is of fundamental importance and should be addressed by the court system to determine how, in the situation of your friend, the needs of law enforcement and citizens’ rights to privacy, balance out under the U.S. Constitution.

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    • Tim,
      I have no doubt that the release of and the broadcast of this recording was legal … but what doesn’t common sense tell us differently? Probably so, but it’s not happening.

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  12. interesting question. As a BIG privacy buff. I don’t think they should be made public at all because it is irrelevant to our daily lives. But I would be willing to compromise and say that they could be made public after the case was over. Interesting thing to think about in these days where privacy has almost ceased to exist.

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  13. So sad. Something needs to be done.
    Why does the public need to hear these calls if there is no purpose – it won’t help catch the murderer/criminal.
    Maybe people need to turn away from exploitive media outlet (and let them know they do not approve of releasing / showing 911 calls in order to gain viewers/money).
    What has happened to human decency and compassion?
    No one needs to witness these tapes but law enforcement who could release them if there was any way a crime could be solved by hearing the call. Or make them available to individuals (to listen only – no recording) by sitting in the police station in a private room.
    So sorry Frank
    When I was in high school we had a young cousin shot in an office parking garage. He’d moved to the big city to work. Never solved, although we offered a reward. The cops barely tried.
    It’s a rough world – but no reason to release these calls on media outlets. (sorry, get outraged about this kind of stuff)

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    • Mouse,
      That’s it. Unless there is something in the call that the public can help with the investigation, keep it on hold. In this case, I can’t see there being anything … but as in the case of your cousin, it remains unsolved … and I fear it remaining so. Thanks for sharing about your cousin, and sorry to hear your family has never had closure.

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  14. Frank, I’m so sorry to hear this. You all are in my thoughts and prayers.

    In response to the question: NO. It’s unnecessary to play the 911 recording to the public. Of what ‘use’ is that, in the investigation or otherwise. It’s a sick, twisted addiction, which leads to more sensationalism and continued desensitization of the public.

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    • Victoria,
      The addiction to sensationalism is a sad case … and at any expense, too! Unless it serves to as an aid to the public helping with the investigation, keep it on hold for a designated time. Many thanks for the thoughts and prayers.

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      • I’m probably missing something, but I’m not sure how it could assist (the public) in the investigation. If there are details, for identification purposes, which could lead to apprehending the perpetrator, the police should make public that kind of information. Otherwise, playing the 911 recordings in the media, is merely rating boosters. I just don’t see what ‘good’ it would do, at any time.

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  15. Murder is not an unknown experience to South Africans. I remember my mom speaking to my aunt over the phone and less than 2 hours later receiving a call saying she had been murdered. I sympathize with you as it is something that takes a while to accept. Murder is wrong and it not only takes away the life of a person, but the trust of many in human nature.

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  16. A horrible experience, but to answer your question 911 calls should be kept private unless they are required as evidence in a court case or the like. As it stands they are just used as a cheap way for the trash media to sensationalize their dull and usually badly written and researched news reports. It is just voyeurism, or whatever the equivalent is that you do with your ears!

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    • Fasab,
      Horrible indeed. It’s been over a month, and I shutter at the horror. The dang problem lies in the fact that 9-1-1 is a public agency … thus easy access for all, including the media. Hence why I would like to see a reasonable hold period.

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  17. Terribly shocking event, Frank, I too am sorry to hear it.
    I don’t think there’s any need to actually play the recording of the call at all as part of a news report, plea for more information or anything else for that matter. If it was deemed necessary to broadcast the conversation, surely parts of it could have been transcribed and read out later… just thinking aloud though, Frank. I think it is disrespectful to broadcast it the following day, however…

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    • Tom,
      Great point about a plea for more information … well, as long as the recording has definite clues in it that are necessary or are most effective communicated. In this case, (in my opinion) this isn’t so. Thanks for you thoughts!

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  18. How terrible … but that’s news today … if they could direct broadcast the murder they would do it. So disgusting, a terribly shocking event … so sorry for your lost of a friend …
    My first love .. Tommy was killed in his car, an Austin Martin .. and in less than 3 hours after his death, people start phoning his parents about buying the car .. for spare parts. He was 21 when he died.

    It’s 112 in UK too, but the Brits doesn’t know .. it’s the only number we can’t dial on Skype … is our countries emergency numbers. Strange …

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  19. My first reaction would be that they shouldn’t be published at all, but sometimes, once information is published a lot of connected stories start to arrive. If there’s crime involved, it might help bring the criminals to justice.

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  20. I think it’s a difficult question. Basically I think for democratic reasons emergency calls should be public, but I would react the same way as you if I had heard someone I know’s emergency call over the network. But if it’s public in the first place, it really comes down to decency of the media – as far as I am concerned. By the way, to add another number to your collection; in Norway the emergency number is 113.

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    • Otto,
      Definitely a difficult question for the reasons you mentioned … the main one being that the emergency call centers are a public agency. On the other hand, relying on the media’s decency is a difficult task because of their ratings race against each other.

      Thanks for Norway’s number …. I’ll edit the post to add it.

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  21. As suggested above, unless agreed to by both parties (presumably to aid an investigation) I feel a waiting period of 30, 60, or 90 days should apply, to give wounded hearts time to heal a bit. That said, Jay Leno presents 911 calls that include, “I ordered onion rings at Burger King, and they don’t have any.” or, “My pizza took 37 minutes to arrive, and they won’t give it to me free.” These people need to know that they are morons, and the sooner the better! 😀

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  22. I am sorry for your friend, dear Frank and my condolences to his wife. This is very tragic death. I don’t know what to say about this 911… but doesn’t seem good to share the records…

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  23. Everything has been said already. Sorry for your loss and the element of violence you and your friend had to endure. In a way, public exposure to the content of 911 reminds me a bit of public executions, where the question is Who’s benefiting from it?

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  24. Frank, so sorry for your loss and my apologies for attending late here. I think the publicizing of the 9-1-1 call is disheartening and painful for the immediate family and friends. I’m not sure of the point of making that call a public affair, if only to bolster the news or to give it an element of sensationalizing or satiating some facet of morbid curiosity. Awful.

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    • Rogue,
      News organization make choices, thus carry the responsibility that goes with each choice … and there’s no doubt that the ratings race influences their choices. In this case, I just can’t seem to justify them the choice. BTW – No late apologies needed as I just appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

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  25. I see no reason whatsoever for 911 calls to be made public. They should only be shared with 911 staff so they may learn from the situation. Losing a loved one is difficult enough and to hear it on tape, no one needs to go through it twice.

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    • Redhead,
      Welcome first-time commenter! … and thanks for jumping in on an interesting topic. Unfortunately, as a public agency, calls are a matter of public record … .but that doesn’t mean they can’t control it! Good point about going through it again. Thanks again for stopping by and I hope you return.

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  26. Firstly my thoughts are with you and your friend in such a trying time.

    As I don’t recall ever hearing emergency calls broadcasted in Finland, I’m going to presume that it’s not possible. There was a trial a few years ago where the 112 call was played in court and then transcripts published in the daily paper. That’s one solution I’m quite comfortable with.

    As for Norway, they have three numbers: 110 Emergency Fire, 112 Emergency Police and 113 Emergency Ambulance. Generally 112 is the recognised number.

    Regarding the limitation on Skype, I believe it’s because they are unable to ascertain your location in the same manner as they can with landlines and gsm phones. According to Skype’s own page, while there are limited circumstances where you can use the service, they don’t support or recommend it.

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    • Kanerva,
      Many thanks for the thoughts … especially for my surviving friend. It’s interesting how different countries seem to treat the calls, although all our a public service. I too am comfortable with what you described. … and also if the recording provides clues as investigators are seeking public assistance. Thanks for the Skype info!

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  27. Late, but firm.

    Many condolences on the loss of your friend and the family (immediate and otherwise) as well.

    As to the calls, there is no probative value to a 911 call unless the killer is suspected as the caller, and the police would attempt to get the voice heard by a larger pool for identification. Once the caller is definitively identified, there is no reason to air the calls. Media suck.

    Um, no. That’s it. Media suck.

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  28. First, I’m so sorry about the loss of your friend, Frank.

    I don’t think 911 calls should not be made public. I think it’s done purely for shock value which is good for no one.

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  29. That would have been chilling, Frank. Never thought of it before.

    I’m truly sorry for your loss. Murder is vicious.

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