March 28, 2001
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The
ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your
I have received your letter of February 27 in which you sought an advisory opinion
concerning "the legality of withholding portions of emergency dispatch records for fear of an
unwarranted invasion of privacy."
By way of background, you indicated that you have requested records of "police, fire and
medical dispatches" in the form of "data copies" of dispatch records and daily summaries that would
be used to supplement the Press & Sun Bulletin's publication of police blotter entries. Broome
County has determined to withhold portions of the records indicating the addresses to which
emergency units were dispatched. The County has also contended that records kept by a 911
employee "relating to the incoming emergency call" are exempt from disclosure under §308(4) of
the County Law. It is your view that the information sought is analogous to police blotter entries,
which are routinely disclosed. Further, you wrote that other emergency services organizations
regularly disclose the information in question.
From my perspective, the addresses must be disclosed. In this regard, I offer the following
First, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of
access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or
portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the
Law. Further, the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or
portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the grounds for denial that follow. The phrase quoted
in the preceding sentence indicates that a single record or report may contain both accessible and
deniable information. Moreover, that phrase in my opinion imposes an obligation upon agencies to
review requested records in their entirety to determine which portions, if any, may justifiably be
Second, of relevance is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states that an
agency may withhold records or portions thereof that:
"if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy under the provisions of subdivision two of section eighty-nine
of this article...."
In addition, §89(2)(b) lists a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, the
first two of which pertain to:
"i. disclosure of employment, medical or credit histories or personal
references or applicants for employment;
ii. disclosure of items involving the medical or personal records of
a client or patient in a medical facility..."
In my view, a record of a medical emergency call consists in great measure of what might
be characterized as a medical record or history relating to the person needing care or service (see
Hanig v. NYS Department of Motor Vehicles, 79 NY 2d 106 (1992)].
Portions of records identifying those to whom medical services were rendered, their ages, and
descriptions of their medical problems or conditions could in my opinion be withheld on the ground
that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, for disclosure of a
name coupled with those details in my view represents a personal and somewhat intimate event in
the individual's life.
However, I believe that other aspects of the records, such as the locations of calls or
addresses, should be disclosed. In my view, an emergency call, particularly when sirens or flashing
lights are used, is an event of a public nature. When a fire truck or ambulance travels to its
destination, that destination is or can be known to those in the vicinity of the event. In essence, I
believe that event is of a public nature and that disclosure of an address or a brief description of an
event would not likely constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Further, the presence
of an emergency vehicle does not necessarily indicate that there is a medical problem; those vehicles
are dispatched for any number of reasons, many of which do not relate to a medical event. Again,
the personally identifiable details described earlier could in my view be withheld.
Lastly, §308(4) of the County Law states that:
"Records, in whatever form they may be kept, of calls made to a
municipality's E911 system shall not be made available to or obtained
by any entity or person, other than that municipality's public safety
agency, another government agency or body, or a private entity or a
person providing medical, ambulance or other emergency services,
and shall not be utilized for any commercial purpose other than the
provision of emergency services."
In my view, "records...of calls" means either a recording or a transcript of the communication
between a person making a 911 emergency call, and the employee who receives the call. I do not
believe that §308(4) can validly be construed to mean records regarding or relating to a 911 call. If
that were so, innumerable police and fire reports, including arrest reports and police blotter entries,
would be exempt from disclosure. In short, §308(4) could not justifiably be construed to pertain to
all such records. Rather, again, I believe that it pertains to the recording or transcript of a 911 call.
In an effort to assist you, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to Colleen F. Colby,
Assistant County Attorney.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Colleen F. Colby