'Without block identifier or cross street information, the public simply cannot evaluate the efficiency of emergency response times with any level of accuracy or confidence.'
(TNS) - The way Luzerne County 911 keeps dispatch call logs prevents the public from being able to evaluate the efficiency of local emergency services, an appeals officer for the state Office of Open Records has determined.
The county emergency call database doesn’t track addresses by block or cross street, which would be public record under the state’s Emergency Services Law, attorney Jill S. Wolfe, the appeals officer, said in a recent ruling on a Right-to-Know case filed by The Citizens’ Voice.
“Without block identifier or cross street information, the public simply cannot evaluate the efficiency of emergency response times with any level of accuracy or confidence,” Wolfe wrote.
Based on past court rulings, the county would seem to have an “affirmative duty to be able to produce call response logs with such information,” Wolfe said.
Luzerne County 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans on Tuesday said in an email he didn’t want to comment until he consulted with county lawyers. He previously told Right-to-Know officials that the county logs calls by specific address, not by block or cross street.
In April, The Citizens’ Voice filed a Right-to-Know request to determine how many times police, fire and ambulance crews have been called to a specific address on East Northampton Street in Wilkes-Barre. The property was a supposed sober living home where a woman overdosed on drugs last year and later died.
The county responded that the law forbids releasing information on a specific address — in order to keep information about victims and witnesses private. Instead, the county provided a 52-page list of all calls — containing more than 3,000 dispatch entries — on East Northampton Street in 2017 and 2018 without house numbers.
The Citizens’ Voice appealed to the state Office of Open Records.
Wolfe recently ruled in the county’s favor on the specific address argument, but noted the county should be able to narrow down calls by block or cross street when providing records to the media and public.
The county claimed its system doesn’t have that capability.
In a similar case involving York County, Wolfe noted the state Commonwealth Court ruled that without cross street information there “would be no way of knowing exactly how far the emergency responders had to travel in response to any given call and, therefore, no way of determining whether or not those response times were deficient.”
Wolfe admitted this was an “unusual” case that pitted together a specific address, the Right-to-Know Law and the Emergency Services Act. Ordinarily, the law would require the county to prove the Emergency Services Law precludes release of the requested information, but the county’s response could inadvertently violate the law, she said.
The law making specific addresses private in Right-to-Know requests was passed in May 2016 by nearly a unanimous vote in the state House and Senate.
The law says 911 centers “may not release individual identifying information about an individual calling a 911 center, victim or witness.” Identifying information was defined as name, telephone number and home address.
However, a provision in the law says the rules shall not apply if a 911 center or a court determines the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interests in non disclosure.
The law says a location of an incident is public unless it is the caller’s, victim’s or witness’s home address or the disclosure of the location would compromise the identity of the caller, victim or witness.
It was not immediately clear who called to report the overdose on East Northampton Street that was the basis for the Right-to-Know request in question.
The Citizens’ Voice has 30 days to appeal to the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas.
“We are reviewing our options,” Citizens’ Voice Managing Editor Dave Janoski said.
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