WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a hearing on the Bloomberg administration's overhaul of the city's 911 emergency call system. City officials have known the system was inadequate and badly in need of updating since September 11, 2001.
In fact, the 911 Commission flagged the call system as a problem in its comprehensive report.
“The 911 system was not equipped to handle the enormous volume of calls it received. Some callers were unable to connect with 911 operators, receiving an ‘all circuits busy’ message,” the 911 Commission concluded. “Transfers were often plagued by delays and were in some cases unsuccessful. Many calls were also prematurely disconnected.”
Almost a decade after September 11, 2001, callers to 911 in a high volume scenario may still find that the system continues to fail New Yorkers when they need it most.
On an average day, 911 handles 30,000 calls without a problem. But when there are large-scale emergencies that prompt wider calls for help, the system still can’t handle it. Callers are more likely to get a busy signal or a recording.
There have been recent upgrades, but the critics contend that some of the most recent changes to the system for efficiency may actually be a step backward for accuracy, for key information like where exactly to send a fire truck.
Two years after the September 11 attacks, the call volume problems resurfaced again during the blackout in August 2003. Afterward, the Bloomberg administration vowed to make upgrading the 911 system a top priority.
“911 call volume overloaded Verizon queuing capacity,” the mayor’s report concluded after the blackout, and it’s a problem with real consequences. “The overload of this system created an inability for callers to reach 911 operators.”
The high volume of calls during the December blizzard showed that there are still major 911 capacity problems in New York City.
At a City Council oversight hearing last month in Queens, long time resident Laura Freeman was inconsolable about the loss of her mother Yvonne, who died of a heart attack after it took more than two hours to get to her on December 27.
"My mother asked for help. She said she could not get her breath, and I did everything I could do. I did what they tell you to do in an emergency – Call 911. And I called, and I called and nobody answered. I just kept getting a message. Why? I beg of all of you why, please why?’”
That morning in December, unplowed streets and an overwhelmed 911 call system conspired against New Yorkers desperate for help. Attorney Sanford Rubenstein is representing the Freemans in their $20 million dollar suit against the city.
"Her daughter was unable to reach 911. All she got was a recorded message and buzzing tones. Why did it break down?,” asks Rubenstein. “Why was it not working? And how do we prevent this from happening in the future?"
The Freemans were not alone, said Rubenstein. In Brooklyn, the family of Claire Reed called 911 that morning.
“An hour and a half later the Fire Department responded. It was too late,” recounted Rubenstein. “Claire Reed died of a heart attack. The failure to declare a snow emergency was inexcusable, as was the breakdown of 911."
City officials know they have a problem, and for years now, the Bloomberg administration’s Department of Information Technology has been working with the Police and Fire Departments on a $2 billion dollar overhaul that's had more than its share of setbacks.
During the height of the blizzard, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly admitted that high call volumes into 911 were causing backlogs. “You call 911 and you get a busy signal and that can happen at peak times, at unusual situations like the snow storm, you are certainly going to get the possibility of getting a busy signal increases," Kelly explained.
Kelly said the biggest mistake people can make in a 911 emergency is to hang up when they get a recording. “What the recording says is stay on the line. What people do, unfortunately, is they hang up and the call again and the go to the end of the queue, so it just makes their wait that much longer,” warned Kelly.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith described the unraveling of any city's most essential service at an oversight hearing following the blizzard.
“By the night of December 26, over one thousand calls were in the queue waiting for a response,” Goldsmith said. “This problem became exacerbated because well over 100 ambulances became stuck in snow conditions, further reducing EMS ability to respond to medical emergencies.”
Police estimate that only one in five of the 50,000 911 calls received during the December blizzard were actual emergencies. Kelly said callers also overwhelmed the City's 311 non-emergency help line. That prompted some to escalate to 911, adding to the vital emergency line's overload.
At a City Council oversight hearing, the NYPD's point man on the 911 upgrade project, Deputy Chief Charles Dowd was feeling the heat and clearly uncomfortable when he was asked when all the needed upgrades would be completed.
“Currently, we are on a 911 switching system that is from 1995. It is overdue now by a couple of years for implementation,” he said. He called the current system “antiquated,” but promised that new technology, scheduled to be in place sometime this fall, would solve many of these problems.
At least one phase of the Bloomberg 911 redesign has been in place for two years – the Unified Call Taking System shifts the intake on fire calls away from the specialized FDNY fire dispatchers to the NYPD 911 operators.
No fire department jobs were cut as a result, but Captain Al Hagan, President of the New York Fire Officers Association, said there was a significant loss in quality dispatching. He said that at least once a day, fire trucks are sent to the wrong address.
“We get incomplete and inaccurate information to the point where our officers refer to the UCT, Unified Call Taking system, as ‘You Can't Tell,’” Hagan said. He said in 2009 the new system was wrong so often that the FDNY felt compelled to create a form to document the mistakes some of which he supplied WNYC. “And we have asked our members to fax us copies of them, we don't get them all and our members don't like paperwork that much but we are inundated. We still get a dozen of them a day.”
The continuing problems have attracted the attention of City Comptroller John Liu, who wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg last month about 911 and invoked the CityTime payroll contract scandal when referencing his concerns about phases of the 911 overhaul. Liu said parts of the $2 billion 911 fix are prone to poor project management, blown deadlines and cost overruns, with one phase ballooning from $380 million to $666 million dollars.
Emergency management veterans also have been critical of city’s systems. Gerry Hauer ran New York's Emergency Management under both Mayors Koch and Giuliani. He is critical of the Bloomberg administration's 911 overhaul. “They have been way over budget, grossly mismanaged, way over their due date, numerous contractors have been fired and nobody has held the Mayor or his Commissioners accountable for that," Hauer said.
A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg said the Unified Call taking system is an example of progress and that the administration's overhaul will fix remaining problems with the high-call volume incidents. Meanwhile, some of the unions who have to work with the system everyday insist the city is wasting time and money.