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FAA offers little direction on e-cigarettes, a fire risk on planes

When an e-cigarette battery started smoldering on a flight to Los Angeles, a SkyWest flight attendant threw it into an ice bucket before shoving it into a fire containment bag.

In Denver, a carry-on bag with overheating vaping batteries "caught fire on a boarding bridge," and firefighters were called to put it out, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In March, Southwest Airlines baggage handlers had to pull a smoking suitcase containing e-cigarette batteries from a plane in San Diego. Adjacent bags were damaged, as was the plane, which was temporarily taken out of service, according to the FAA.

E-cigarettes and the rechargeable lithium ion batteries that power them have caused smoke or fire incidents on planes or at airports 30 times in less than three years, according to an FAA database.

But the e-cigarettes are emblematic of a broader problem, data shows. Passengers in the United States bring an estimated 2.3 billion electronic devices on planes each year, and safety experts say federal regulators have struggled to keep up with the deluge, often deferring to airlines to manage potential dangers.

In addition to the e-cigarette incidents, the FAA recorded at least 65 other cases of smoking, sparking and flaming lithium ion batteries in laptops, tablets, phones and other devices, including power packs, rechargeable drill batteries and a camera, according to a Washington Post analysis of FAA data, which the agency acknowledged is incomplete.

"We think that's a pretty significant threat," said Mark Millam, vice president of technical programs at the Flight Safety Foundation and a former safety chief at Northwest Airlines. "It's gone from one to multiple devices that most passengers are carrying on. You don't know where all these things are coming from and what's in them and how legitimate they are."

The Post analysis considers the nearly three-year period since the FAA took the rare step of banning fire-prone Samsung Note 7 smartphones Oct. 15, 2016.

Some advocates — and even some inside the industry — say federal regulators have not been aggressive enough in addressing the risks.

An FAA advisory group said last year that the agency's guidance for flight crews in fighting fires caused by electronic devices is "inadequate and outdated." It said better training is needed to manage threats from burning batteries, including potentially toxic and flammable gases and smoke that could obscure pilots' vision.

"So far we've been lucky nothing's happened," said Charlie Leocha, president of the advocacy group Travelers United. "I just don't think the FAA has caught up with the threat."

Media reports this summer that the FAA had banned hundreds of thousands of recalled 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro laptops from planes were inaccurate, the agency and airline representatives said. Numerous laptop models have been recalled because of the possibility they could overheat and catch fire, including those from Apple, Toshiba, Lenovo and Panasonic, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But while the FAA broadly prohibits hazardous devices, "it's up to the individual airlines to determine whether a device is likely to 'create sparks or generate a dangerous evolution of heat,' and to transmit that information to their passengers," the agency told the Post. "Because of the wide variety of battery issues that can occur, it is important that airlines have the flexibility to assess and address the risks involved in each individual situation," the statement said.

In the case of the recently recalled Apple laptops, responses from airlines have been inconsistent. A Delta spokeswoman said the recalled laptops are not permitted, pointing to a policy statement on the airline's website that "damaged, defective or recalled lithium batteries must not be carried in carry-on or checked baggage."

Meanwhile, executives at American and United said the recalled laptops can be brought aboard in carry-on bags but not in checked luggage. United customers must keep the devices turned off and unplugged, the airline said. "Part of the responsibility we're going to place on the customer," United spokesman Charles Hobart said.

Flight attendants, ground crews, agents with the Transportation Security Administration and passengers have increasingly become firefighters, scrambling to limit the damage, FAA incident reports show.

When a Frontier Airlines passenger tossed a smoking iPhone into the aisle on a flight to Phoenix last year, "another passenger picked it up and brought it to the lavatory and placed it in the sink and ran water over it then covered it in ice," according to an FAA report.

The flight was diverted to Tampa, two people were treated for minor burns, and several passengers reported nausea and headaches, the FAA said. Firefighters walked away with "the faulty cellphone and its associated defective charger," the FAA said.

The year before, an iPhone caught fire after being crunched in a reclining seat on a flight from Spain. Flight attendants put the phone in a fire containment bag.

On a December 2016 flight from Honolulu, "a fire was discovered in an overhead bin," according to an FAA incident report. The crew used three halon-gas fire extinguishers and two more filled with water to douse the burning laptop that caused it.

Many of the burning battery incidents took place on the ground, such as when a woman ran off a plane in Oakland because an e-cigarette burned a hole in her purse. Another erupted in a passenger's pocket in Las Vegas, sending a man to the hospital.

But about a quarter of the incidents involving e-cigarettes, and half of those involving other electronics, happened in the air, the FAA data show, elevating safety concerns.

"Just one fire incident poses a high risk of death," serious injury or destruction of property, the U.S. Transportation Department and the FAA said in their 2016 emergency order banning the Samsung Note 7. "This risk is magnified when the fire or evolution of heat occurs aboard an aircraft during flight."

To reduce the risk of "serious harm to the traveling public," the FAA banned e-cigarettes from checked bags in 2015, "because the devices are capable of generating extreme heat and an incident can result in the ignition of nearby contents," according to a regulatory filing.

The agency cited "two near misses for the safety of aviation passengers" - a fire in a checked bag before a flight from Boston in 2014 and another in January 2015 in a baggage area in Los Angeles. Better to bring the devices into cabins because fires there can "be immediately identified and mitigated" by flight attendants, the FAA said. (Federal regulations bar passengers from putting spare lithium ion or lithium metal batteries for other electronics in their checked luggage for the same reasons.)

But enforcement has been lax, and passengers continue to disregard the checked-luggage ban, interviews and incident reports show.

A flaming checked bag scorched the floor of an American Airlines plane before takeoff in St. Kitts in March. Another, in May on a belt loader in Baltimore, had to be extinguished by firefighters. Last year, a burning bag rumbled around the carousel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, following a flight, according to the FAA.

In several recommendations last year, the FAA advisory group, the Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee, called on the agency to update its advice to airlines on dealing with fires caused by batteries. The group said training should be enhanced on "the critical importance of maintaining aircraft control" during incidents, given the danger of toxic fumes and smoke.

The FAA said it has "continued to work collaboratively with the industry" through the advisory group and is working "to update our guidance and develop training media for the industry," which it expects to release for public comment by early 2020.

AG unveils plan to address crisis of missing Native American women

PABLO, Mont. (AP) — Attorney General William Barr announced a nationwide plan Friday to address the crisis of missing and slain Native American women as concerns mount over the level of violence they face.

Barr announced the plan, known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, during a visit with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

Native American-women experience some of the nation's highest rates of murder, sexual violence and domestic abuse. The National Institute of Justice estimates that 1.5 million Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including many who are victims of sexual violence. On some reservations, federal studies have shown women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.

The Justice Department's new initiative would invest $1.5 million to hire specialized coordinators in 11 U.S. attorney's offices across the U.S. with significant Indian Country caseloads. The coordinators would be responsible for developing protocols for a better law enforcement response to missing persons cases.

Montana's coordinator, a former FBI agent, already has started in his position.

Tribal or local law enforcement officials would also be able to call on the FBI for additional help in some missing indigenous persons cases. The FBI could then deploy some of its specialized teams, including investigators who focus on child abduction or evidence collection and special agents who can help do a quick analysis of digital evidence and social media accounts.

The Justice Department also committed to conducting an in depth analysis of federal databases and its data collection practices to determine if there are ways to improve the gathering of information in missing persons cases.

"This is not a panacea," Barr told tribal council members of the Salish and Kootenai Confederated Tribes at an event where members presented him with a blue blanket before a traditional musical performance. "This is a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do working together."

Barr said he spoke to President Donald Trump about the initiative, which calls for some of the same things already in legislation pending in Congress. He also spoke to tribal leaders about how a surge in methamphetamine use may be influencing violence in Indian Country.

On the nation's largest Native American reservation, tribal members welcomed the extra resources and commitment to the issue but questioned how far the money will go, given how widespread the problem is.

"This is stuff we've been advocating for, it's just funding a slice of it," said Amber Crotty, a lawmaker on the Navajo Nation.

Crotty pointed out that the hiring of 11 coordinators assigned to federal prosecutor offices nationally as outlined by Barr could have limited value on the Navajo Nation, which is part of three separate U.S. attorney jurisdictions in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

She said tribes are looking to the federal government to fund advocates who can greet families of victims, relay information from law enforcement and provide training. She said tribal communities have resorted to organizing their own search parties and posting flyers in communities and on social media when someone goes missing because they sometimes get little or no response from law enforcement.

The extent of the problem of missing and murdered Native American women is difficult to know because of the dysfunction surrounding the issue.

An Associated Press investigation last year found that nobody knows precisely how many Native American women have gone missing or have been killed nationwide because many cases go unreported, others aren't well documented and no government database specifically tracks them.

A report released last year by the Urban Indian Health Institute said there were 5,712 cases of missing and murdered indigenous girls in 2016, but only 116 of those cases were logged in a Justice Department database.

That study is limited in scope, however.

The report by the Seattle nonprofit reflected data from 71 U.S. cities not on tribal land. Researchers said they expect their figures represent an undercount because some police departments in cities with substantial Native American populations — like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Billings, Montana — didn't respond to records requests or Native Americans were identified as belonging to another race.

Members of Congress asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office in May to review jurisdictional challenges, existing databases, federal policies, law enforcement staffing and notification systems and make recommendations for improvement. The office said Thursday that the work is underway.

Bills in Congress seek to address the crisis, and a half-dozen states have vowed to study the problem.

Meanwhile, activists have held rallies at state capitols, marched in the streets, put up memorials and billboards, bought television advertising and created exhibits with space for prayer offerings to draw attention to missing indigenous women.

The movement has featured women with a red handprint over their mouths, in what activists say is a symbol of the silencing of indigenous women.

Curtison Badonie with the New Mexico-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women said the Justice Department's plan is a positive move in seeking justice for indigenous women and girls, and their grieving families and communities.

"Finally, they're moving forward with this and they're taking our existence seriously and are listening and knowing our sisters, our aunties, our grandmas, our nieces are important," Badonie said. "They are sacred, they are human beings. We feel hopeful. We feel seen."

But Badonie said: "We want to see that this continues, that this is not going to be just a one-time thing."

Tribal police and investigators from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs generally serve as law enforcement on reservations, which are sovereign nations. But the FBI investigates certain offenses if the suspect, victim or both are Native American. If there's ample evidence, the Justice Department prosecutes major felonies such as murder, kidnapping and rape if they happen on tribal lands.

Judge: Douglas County not liable for taking 40 minutes to pinpoint location of slayings, assault

A judge has ruled that Douglas County is not liable for damages in a horrific case of domestic violence in which a woman was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend after he fatally shot her two brothers, and it took 40 minutes for 911 to pinpoint the location in west Omaha.

Julie Edwards sued the county for damages from the 2016 assault by Kenneth Clark. He attacked her after shooting her brothers, John and Jason Edwards, as they were removing her possessions from Clark’s house. John Edwards survived long enough to call 911 on his cellphone from the basement multiple times, but he was unable to provide the address.

Clark held Julie Edwards hostage for almost four hours, then continued a standoff with law enforcement officers for eight more hours before fatally shooting himself.

Julie Edwards’ attorneys had contended that Douglas County Emergency Management Department personnel had a duty to use reasonable care in handling the 911 calls and the response to them and that they breached that duty, which resulted in her being assaulted.

But Douglas County District Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf ruled this week that the county had no such legal duty under current state law. She issued a summary judgment in favor of the county Thursday. The case was to have gone to trial Wednesday, but Retelsdorf informed the attorneys on Monday that she would grant the county’s motion for summary judgment without a trial.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Heather Voegele, an attorney for Edwards. “We very much respect Judge Retelsdorf and her rulings, but we do disagree with this one, and we do intend to appeal.”

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said his staff had thought that it would prevail on the issues and was pleased with the ruling.

“It’s obviously a very sad situation that caused the deaths of these two individuals and the assault of Julie Edwards,” Kleine said.

But, he added, “Ken Clark was the person who was responsible for the harm that was done to her.”

On the morning of Feb. 12, 2016, Edwards went with her brothers to Clark’s house at 2511 N. 140th St., where she had formerly lived. They did not expect Clark to be home. He shot John and Jason Edwards. Julie Edwards tried to run away, but Clark chased her down, dragged her inside and tied her up.

According to court documents, John Edwards first called 911 at 10:12 a.m. but couldn’t speak. An emergency operator tried to call him back. He called again at 10:21 a.m., one of seven calls that transpired back and forth between him and 911 over the course of 22 minutes.

At one point, John Edwards told an operator that he was near 135th and Blondo Streets. Cellphone tower information suggested that the call was coming from the vicinity of 150th and Blondo Streets.

At one point, Edwards told 911 that the name of his sister’s boyfriend was Ken Clark. But the dispatcher thought that Edwards said Kent Park and asked if Edwards was outside near a park.

Edwards again gave 911 Clark’s name in a subsequent call. Eventually, the dispatcher figured out the address of Clark’s house based on his name, but it took another eight minutes before first responders were dispatched to the house.

Mission Critical, a consulting firm hired by the Nebraska Public Service Commission to review the handling of the emergency, concluded that several things that 911 personnel did were not consistent with best practices.

A Public Service Commission report recommended more training on the use of location information, on asking questions that will give first responders more information about what kind of situations they will face and on projecting empathy toward callers.

County officials have the faulted technology for locating people on cellphones and noted that 911 personnel persisted until they determined where the people were.

Authorities have said since the beginning that finding the Edwardses sooner would not necessarily have changed the outcome.

Edwards and her attorneys, Voegele and Gretchen McGill, disagreed. Had dispatchers and operators used reasonable care, they said, their client would not have been assaulted.

“To be very clear, Julie is very thankful and appreciative for what the cops and the rescue team and medical staff did for her,” Voegele said. “But she feels very strongly that there needs to be change at the 911 level.”

Releases from Missouri River dams to be lowered starting Saturday

After months of extraordinarily high releases from upstream dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Saturday finally begins cutting back.

The releases have contributed to high levels on the Missouri River along the Nebraska-Iowa border southward. And those high levels have kept water from draining from still-flooded and damaged portions of the valley.

And that’s kept life on hold for some in the bottomland along the river. Some families haven’t been able to get back to their homes, some roads remain damaged or underwater, and in some areas, electricity has yet to be restored.

On Saturday, releases from Gavins Point Dam drop to 75,000 cubic feet per second, down from 80,000 cfs. Gavins Point is the farthest downstream of six massive dams on the upper Missouri. Together, they comprise the largest reservoir system in North America.

By mid-December, releases are expected to be down to 22,000 cubic feet.

That means that releases, which have been running more than 200% above average, will be about 30% above average as winter arrives.

The drop in releases will significantly reduce river levels from Yankton, South Dakota, to the river’s mouth at St. Louis, said Eileen Williamson, spokeswoman for the corps, which manages the dams. How much the river drops and when will depend upon how long it takes the flooded areas and high tributaries to drain into the river.

Many of the Missouri’s tributaries are flowing well above normal and likely will flow above normal for most if not all of the winter, Williamson said.

Ongoing high river levels also have prevented the corps from being able to fully assess damage to some of the fractured levees along the river.

Matt Krajewski, chief of the readiness branch for the Omaha district of the corps, said it could be about mid-December before the corps can fully assess the extent of damage to levees and what it will take to fix them.

The corps has estimated that the cost of repairing levees could exceed $1 billion and take about three years.

Photos: Nebraska flooding viewed from above