Should 911 Recordings Be Public?

There’s something to be said in a free society for making those 911 emergency-call recordings available to the public. They made us aware of how very badly Big Island ambulance dispatchers screwed up in that 1991 Dana Ireland rape-and-murder case.

There’s also something very troubling to me about another aspect. People reporting fires, murders and family drownings are not always coherent and certainly don’t expect to be featured on The News at 10.

And unless there’s some serious screw-up, as in that Ireland case, there is no good reason to put them on The News at 10. But we all know how hyper TV news has become and how anything sensational is good TV – 911 calls on fires, murders and drownings are usually very sensational.

I’ve been reviewing that recording of the first call about the Waikele bunker fireworks disaster in April, which seems to have first been broadcast on Hawaii News Now (KGMB and KHNL) and then just about everywhere.

I find the dispatcher at 911 to have been very focused on fact-finding and the caller to have been hysterical, unfactual, vulgar and not helpful. He obviously was under great emotional distress. Men were dying in that bunker blast.

The dispatcher’s one error was saying – after the caller had hung up – “what a f—— idiot.” Nobody heard that, however, except the digital “tape.” But now the dispatcher is taking official heat and accused in one headline of showing “disdain.”

I blame the caller for being almost incoherent. The dispatcher is trying to get him to calm down and provide some facts. The fire trucks and ambulance and police have already, automatically, been sent out. The dispatcher needs to know how much more is needed, such as Hazmat. He needs some facts, not hysteria. The caller is swearing at him as if the dispatcher is an idiot.

OK, so it was unprofessional for the dispatcher to have made his comment after the caller hung up. That seems to be the main reason why he’s getting beat up in the media. Our sympathy is with the dead men, although we still don’t know why they were dismantling confiscated aerial fireworks inside the bunker – something that’s taboo under terms of the storage company’s license.

But the real place we should turn our attention is to the ruling that 911 calls are public record in all cases. In March, that resulted in TV and radio stations everywhere broadcasting a recording of calls after the deadly crash of a children’s train ride in South Carolina, many punctuated by screams.

Our TV stations now regularly demand the 911 recordings. They make for exciting fodder for viewers. But what public purpose is served on a regular basis other than curiosity? Should we also release tapes of our medical examiner’s autopsies?

I had no public-be-served need to hear that hysterical caller from the Waikele bunker. Neither did you.

Somebody needs to rethink the whole tapes matter.