Demi Moore 911 call shouldn’t dictate whether system is reformed

You couldn’t listen without feeling creepy. The panic: “She’s convulsing…burning up.” The action: “She smoked something”. And finally the reveal: “How old is Demi?” That Demi? Moore?

Of course it was. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been privy to, or cared about, the recording of the lurid 911 call from the actress’ home that made the YouTube/Facebook rounds recently.

In response to the tape’s release, Assemblywoman Norma Torres is preparing a bill to stop 911 calls that disclose a medical condition from reaching the public. I get it: Even as I hung on every word of the Moore tape, eavesdropping on someone in extreme distress felt wrong.

Torres, who worked as a 911 dispatcher for 18 years, says “lives are being jeopardized” due to the fear that calling for help would lead to public exposure.


“I don’t think a medical condition should be entertainment,” she said.

But the bill is a mistake. How many people would allow a friend to die or go without critical treatment because of the remote possibility that their call would one day be on Twitter?

Public policy should not be based on the actions of celebrities. They’re the ultimate outliers. Besides, L.A. fire officials, with advice from the city attorney, heavily spliced the Moore tape to comply with federal medical privacy law.

The privacy law has been widely misinterpreted, resulting in such absurd scenarios as nurses refusing to tell relatives that a family member has died. Clearly, its provisions are subjective as Torres insists the tape contains private medical details, while fire officials say they cut out those that violated the privacy law. How is California going to make things better by slapping a new medical privacy code onto an old inscrutable one?


Any doubt the public needs to watchdog the 911 system vanished this month with the release of tapes from a social worker’s emergency calls regarding Josh Powell, a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife in Washington state.

The social worker said Powell slammed the door in her face on what was supposed to be a supervised visit with his two children. She added that she smelled gas and feared for the kids’ lives, but the dispatcher classified the call as routine, resulting in a delay in response.

In the interim, Powell set the house on fire, killing himself and the boys. The dispatcher later described his own handling of the call as “clumsy and faltering.”

The clamor for the Demi Moore call to be made public may have been motivated by voyeurism, but this tape also showed that 911 rescue is not working as well as it should.


Let me break it down:

Emergency calls in Los Angeles County are handled by the mishmash of fire and police agencies that protect our region. The Moore call, like two-thirds of those that come to the LAPD, came in by cellphone.

House phones have computerized tracking systems that instantly reveal the callers’ exact address to the dispatcher.

With older mobile units, the caller’s location is identified by triangulating from the closest two or three cellphone towers. Newer models have GPS chips that can narrow the phone’s whereabouts to an area about the size of a football field, but the technology is not precise.


The locaters work pretty well outdoors, but pinpointing cell calls from inside a building is less reliable.

There is confusion surrounding which agency first took the Moore call. Initially, authorities said it was transferred to the L.A. Fire Department by the California Highway Patrol, which in the early days of cellphones handled all mobile emergency calls because they came from the road. Now that more than one in four homes in the U.S. has no land line, local agencies are picking up more of the calls.

This week, the CHP said the call went straight to the L.A. Fire Department. That was the right agency to respond to Moore’s house, which is in the city limits, near Benedict Canyon. Moore’s friend, however, said the house was in Beverly Hills.

The call had fallen into one of the city’s notorious Bermuda Triangles. Some homes and businesses inside the L.A. city limits identify themselves as being in Beverly Hills. (There are even names for the disputed territory — Beverly Hills Post Office or Beverly Hills adjacent.) Because of the unreliability of cellphone location technology, dispatchers are trained to check out whatever address the caller gives.


So the Fire Department transferred the call to the Beverly Hills Fire Department. Both dispatchers remained on the line while they sorted out the confusion.

Beverly Hills started to say they were the wrong agency. Moore’s friend broke in: “Why is an ambulance not on its way right now? Why is it taking so long?”

“Ma’am, instead of arguing with me why an ambulance is not on their way, can you spell it for me?” the Beverly Hills dispatcher responded in a churlish tone, presumably trying to get Moore’s street name straight (this part of the tape was redacted).

“I’m sorry?” the caller said, sounding startled.


“Instead of arguing with me, can you spell it for me please?” the Beverly Hills dispatcher repeated, still sounding annoyed.

The Beverly Hills dispatcher and her supervisor eventually verified that Moore’s home was outside their territory, and Los Angeles fire resumed processing the call. The caller again asked if the ambulance was coming. The Los Angeles fire dispatcher didn’t answer but instead sought details of Moore’s condition.

There’s no way to tell from the tape how much time was spent on the jurisdictional juggling because of the heavy redactions. An L.A. fire spokeswoman said it took 21 minutes for an ambulance to reach Moore’s home and 46 minutes for her to be taken to the hospital. The tape lasted 7 1/2 minutes.

A spokesman for Beverly Hills said the city’s dispatcher was on the call for just over a minute. The spokesman also said the dispatcher was not being rude or argumentative when she asked the caller to quit arguing with her.


Torres, however, said the call could have been handled with more finesse.

“The dispatcher could have gone a long way by saying an ambulance is on its way,” Torres said in a phone interview. Torres also said she has no intention of covering up blunders by 911 call centers, and suggested that if response time is being lost to boundary questions, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles might reconfigure how they handle that part of town.

On the other hand, Torres said the dispatchers’ job is incredibly tough, and callers don’t understand that there’s more to it than sending out an ambulance.

“You have to have a thick skin,” she said.


Nobody likes someone looking over their shoulder while they work. But ensuring the emergency response system is working right is of paramount importance in this age of terrorism and natural disasters.

Open government is messy, but that’s no reason to shut it down.