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.
Even before Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected there were concerns about the city's antiquated 911 call system, and after the September 11 attack, there was a consensus the city's 911 emergency call system needed a major upgrade. At the 911 Commission hearing in New York, member Richard Ben-Veniste addressed former Mayor Rudy Giuliani about the commission's findings.
"Individuals who were trapped in the building called 911 searching for answers to their immediate distress, and we found that those operators were not in a position to do anything other than receive information," said Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. "It wasn't an interactive loop, which was obviously called for in circumstances of this kind of dire emergency."
Former Mayor Giuliani agreed: "911 was overwhelmed, and should it have been larger? should it have been anticipated? Yes, it probably should have but it wasn't," he said.
911 FAILS AGAIN
August 2003: a blackout hits several states on up into Canada. Almost two years after September 11, the city had a new mayor but the same antiquated 911 call system that once again couldn't handle the volume of incoming calls during a major emergency.
At the height of the crisis Bloomberg warned people against using 911.
"And so let me just urge everybody: don't use 911 unless it is a life threatening situation or a crime is in progress," the mayor said.
A COGENT DIAGNOSIS OF 911 PROBLEMS
Michael Bloomberg: Who better to finally fix 911 than an expert at leveraging information technology for profit. After the 2003 blackout, he appointed a panel to look at how the city could improve its emergency communications and crisis response. The panel faulted 911 for a lack of efficiency. It documented seven different dispatch centers and three distinct dispatch systems that left callers with busy signals.
The panel concluded the remedy was a "robust integrated dispatch" that took shape in the Emergency Communications Transformation Project — which would break the silos of separate police, fire and EMS dispatching. All would be integrated at the current 911 call center at Metrotech in Brooklyn. Westside Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who chaired the Council's Technology Committee, said it was the plan's requirement for a second 911 back up call center that caught her eye.
"They also decided to build — for many years we did not know where — another redundant facility," Brewer said. "We were always told somewhere in the Bronx. The capital budget would show $1 billion for $2 billion."
Redundancy is critical for effective emergency management. The original plans called for a 374-foot structure comparable to a 37-story residential building along the Hutchinson Parkway inaccessible by mass transit.
A SITE VISIT
As late as 2005, much of the future site of the 911 back-up call center was taxpayer-state owned as part of the Bronx Psychiatric Center. It was declared surplus and sold off by the Empire State Development Corporation to a developer. In 2009, the City of New York went to court and condemned the land and paid $32.9 million to the same developer who snapped it up from the state a few years earlier.
The land is the cheap part of the 911 back-up center.
Even though the Bloomberg Administration has pledged to shrink the facility, it still has close to a $700 million price tag when technology, computers and access roads are added to the tally.
Councilwoman Brewer said it's years overdue and questioned whether it is even necessary.
"People in the tech world felt it was a complete waste of time and money because they always felt that in today's world can almost do a virtual redundancy," Brewer said. "In fact, people within city government felt that way but they were afraid to say something."
The total cost for the back-up 911 building is $700 million dollars. The budget for the remainder of the Emergency Communications Transformation project is twice that: $1.3 billion for technology and software contracts.
SKIN IN THE GAME
No one is more interested in seeing a long overdue upgrade than the 911 operators, dispatchers and supervisors, who work with the system everyday.
"The system that we are using, that our operators are using now, is the same system that was in their in 1972 with modifications," said Henry Garrido an Associate Director with District 37, the union that represents the 911 workforce.
DC 37 has long complained that the Bloomberg Administration's spending on technology contractors — including on the 911 makeover — lacked any meaningful oversight.
According to internal city documents, dozens of outside consultants were paid between $147 and $267 per hour, which factors out to more than $555,000 a year.
Dianne Marenfeld, a 30-year 911 call center veteran and a DC 37 shop steward, said workers could save valuable time with modern software and should be consulted more about how to update the system.
"We are so antiquated," she said. "If we had a new computer-aided dispatch system, if somebody said, 'I have a cardiac,' and type in 'C' for cardiac or whatever the code would be and everything would fall into place."
A review of thousands of pages of internal 911 contract documents (see here, here and here) by WNYC shows city managers struggling to reign in outside private contractors. Deputy mayors, commissioners and deputy commissioners would write memo after memo in hopes of making progress but just never seemed to have the leverage on the contractors who appeared to be running the show on their schedule not the city's.
"Consequently, we have spent and wasted millions and millions of dollars creating a system that, to this day, does not work," said District 37's Garrido.
So how did the project that started with such a clear mandate get off the tracks? According to a Department of Investigation memo obtained by WNYC under a Freedom of Information request, just a year after the 2003 blackout the initiative hit a real snag that cost months.
FLAG ON THE PLAY
Verizon, a big player in the city's emergency calling upgrade, "self-reported" to the city that it had gotten a hold of a draft solicitation of some city 911 procurement documents — and that employees of Verizon had inappropriately paid for meals and entertainment for high-ranking city employees who were involved in the "pending multi-million dollar procurement that Verizon might potentially bid on."
The Department of Investigation called a halt to all of the work on the procurement while it conducted an investigation. Verizon terminated some employees and others went through re-training.
DOI concluded that Verizon and another contractor iXP "had both improperly provided expensive meals and entertainment to city employees who had a role in pending procurements involving both companies." Both contractors entered agreements with DOI committing to conduct future business with the City ethically.
Verizon paid the City almost $800,000, and iXP paid $125,000 to compensate the city for whatever additional costs it might have incurred due to the delay that extended from September of 2004 until May.
DOI concluded that four NYPD officers — including then-NYPD Inspector Charles Dowd and an FDNY Assistant Commissioner — "accepted valuable gifts in violation of the City Charter." However, the DOI concluded that none of the city employees improperly shared information with the vendors or tried to improperly influence the actions of subordinates who were actually making the decisions on the procurements.
Charles Dowd has been subsequently promoted to Deputy Chief and leads thew NYPD 911 makeover effort.
FINALLY A RESET? WE'LL SEE
After the CityTime scandal — when several contractors were indicted for allegedly stealing $80 million from a payroll software project — Bloomberg tasked Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith to re-evaluate all of the city's big-ticket technology contracts.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith conceded DC 37's point about the excessive layers of outside contractors.
"And so what we need to do is remove the layers of contractors, contractors managing contractors all with mark-ups," Goldsmith said. "And we need to bring the top level work back into City Hall."
Just this week, Goldsmith announced plans to try and further reduce the costs of the Bronx back-up. And back in February, the mayor, deputy mayor Goldsmith and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Carole Post opened a state-of-the-art data center. It integrated the IT infrastructure of 19 city agencies with 40 more to follow — with zero reliance on outside contractors and at savings of as much as $100 million over the next five years.
Back in her office at 250 Broadway, Councilwoman Brewer said even at its reduced footprint she still feels the Bronx 911 call center is not necessary. Brewer said the lack of progress on the 911 upgrade distresses her.
"911 calls during the blizzard were many times not answered or busy signals, overload," Brewer said. "I don't know if another disaster, God forbid, or horrible incident takes place that 911 could handle that load."
So, nearly a decade after September 11, the 911 rehab is several hundreds of millions of dollars more expensive than originally projected and years behind schedule.