The Process of FOIA and 9-1-1

Day in and day out we see news stories that reveal the inner workings of local government, small business owners, 9-1-1 calls, etc. The information given on news broadcasts can raise an eyebrow as to how it was obtained. So how do they get their information and are you, the general public, able to do the same? In most cases, the journalist working on the story has put in a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This is something that anyone can do. According to,

“Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.”

How does this work for 9-1-1?

Speaking with a Training Coordinator and 13 year 9-1-1 operator of a local dispatch center, she states that, “FOIA’s are the requests that dispatch can receive in writing from a person or attorney (in reference to) a case that was handled.” She goes on to say that 9-1-1 calls are involved in the process because the dispatch center answers the 9-1-1 or general calls that come into dispatch. Since 9-1-1 centers fall under local government they fit right into the Freedom of Information Act.

The FOIA process has been used many times to acquire calls and transcripts to make the public aware of incidents going on around them. For example, Charlie Butts of reported on, “a pro-life activist group (that) confirmed a 17th medical emergency in less than a year at a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic.” This incident occurred in Indianapolis and Butts spoke to Operation Rescue’s Cheryl Sullenger, who told him that her organization was able to obtain transcripts of the 9-1-1 call through the Freedom of Information Act.

Butts of reported on Sullenger as saying that, “Apparently in this particular abortion, a woman was involved in a second-trimester abortion in her 14th week of pregnancy," she details. "And for some reason, the abortionist could not finish the procedure. She had to stop in the middle and call for help." reported further on what was revealed through the transcripts and 9-1-1 recording by quoting Sullenger as saying, “It appears that the caller, the employee at Planned Parenthood who called 9-1-1, was extremely evasive, did not want to give information," Sullenger reports. "The dispatcher had to ask four different times what was wrong with the woman and why she needed an ambulance. -- this actually delays emergency care, and the emergency responders cannot be prepared for what they're going to find there.”

Can anything be obtained from a FOIA request?

In the example above, the person who submitted the FOIA request was able to get everything she needed, but not everything can be revealed through a FOIA request. Some items can be redacted from the file. A quick definition from Merriam-Webster defines redact as, “to obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release.” The training coordinator says that, “items that can be redacted are the callers name, information, and Lein.” Lein in this statement refers to the callers name, address, and warrant check, license check, etc. “If a case is still open or pending investigation,“ says the training coordinator, “it is not FOIA'able until that case is closed by the agency.”

Being able to FOIA a record has done more than just release 9-1-1 calls. Below is an infographic on what being able to FOIA a record has done for us in the 46 years of its existence. For more information on 9-1-1 recordings, public records and the FOIA process for your state; you can go to the First Amendment Center. The site is a “compilation of state statutes and bills concerning public release of 911 emergency telephone recordings and transcripts.” If there is nothing listed for your state, you can also check out FOIA Advocates. This site can direct you to the public record laws of each state.