- It's not uncommon to hear recordings of actual 911 emergency calls, especially when they involve celebrities
- In many states, 911 calls are public records and can be listened to or reproduced by anyone
- Some states, however, don't make the audio part of the calls public records, and other states are following their leads
- Public access to 911 recordings can be helpful at times
- If you have an opinion about public access to 911 recordings, let your lawmakers know it
In most states, anyone can get a recording or written transcript of an emergency 911 call. News media of all sorts do it all the time. Some states are questioning this practice. What do you think?
On the Air
If you regularly watch the news on your TV or computer, you've probably heard a recording of a 911 emergency call. In 2009 and 2010, there were several 911 calls splashed all over local and national news broadcasts, such as:
- The call to paramedics when Michael Jackson was found unconscious and unresponsive to emergency aid delivered by his personal doctor
- Calls made by family members and neighbors after Tiger Woods wrecked his car just outside his home
Brooke Mueller's call to police during and after a domestic altercation with her husband-actor, Charlie Sheen
Of course, you don't have to be a celebrity to have your 911 call made part of the evening news. You've no doubt heard calls made by toddlers and young children trying to get help for an injured parent. You may also have heard 911 calls for help by persons who've witnessed or discovered brutal or violent crimes.
The point is the call wouldn't be on the news or all over the web if, in fact, it wasn't news. Juicy gossip, tidbits, and, yes, the misfortunes of the rich and famous are news items a lot of people want to hear and know about. TV ratings, hits on websites, and newspaper sales go up. The same is true for calls by ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances. The real life drama of a 911 call can make the best reality TV.
In many states, 911 recordings are public records. They're calls made to taxpayer-paid government employees using equipment paid for by taxpayers concerning events or circumstances that are of public concern and interest, primarily public safety. To get access to a 911 recording or written transcript, usually all you have to do is file a written request (usually a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request) with local authorities.
In some states, however, certain information may be removed from the recording before it's released. This includes the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the person who made the call, as well as such information about witnesses or victims. In some states there's no requirement to remove this information.
Once you have the recording, you're free to post it on the internet or play it on the nightly news.
Off the Air
A few states put limits on the use of 911 recordings. In April 2010, Alabama passed a law barring the release of the audio recording of a 911 call unless there's a court order for the audio. You can get a written transcript of the call by paying a fee, though.