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.
The Bloomberg administration's re-design of the city's 911 emergency call system is $1 billion over-budget and seven years behind schedule, according to a comprehensive audit of the project by City Comptroller John Liu.
The system re-design and planned new call centers were supposed to be completed by 2008 at a cost of $1.3 billion. Liu told WNYC on Wednesday that the price tag is closer to $2.3 billion with a 2015 completion date — two years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office.
“Years of mismanagement have led to this incredibly enormous budget overrun, and to date, it is still not fully operational,” Liu told WNYC on Wednesday.
Concerns about the effectiveness of the city's 911 system stem from September 11, 2001, when the system was overwhelmed with callers not being able to get through or getting inaccurate information. The system's poor performance during the August 2003 blackout prompted Bloomberg to create a panel to investigate how emergency communications could be improved.
By 2004, the Bloomberg administration had a blueprint for a major system upgrade which was rolled out with much fanfare as the Emergency Communications Transformation Program (ECTP).
It called for the integration of the city's separate police, fire and ambulance emergency dispatch systems as well as the creation of two 911 call centers — one based at the City's Metrotech facility in Brooklyn and a second back-up call center in the Bronx.
Liu's audit found that as early as 2007 the Bloomberg administration disregarded an internal memo from the city's Department of Information Technology, which called for the contracts to be re-bid and raised serious questions about how the project was being handled.
The comptroller's audit identified a lack of oversight and independent quality assurance for ECTP's outsourced IT contracts. Similar issues had been previously flagged in reviews of the Bloomberg administration's CityTime payroll system re-design, which resulted in a $600 million, multi-layered fraud prosecution.
The comptroller says the city office responsible for keeping day to day tabs on 911 re-design and makeover is under-staffed and there has been a rapid turn-over of top managers – including the unexpected departures of 911 redo boss Skip Funk and Deputy Mayor for Operations Stephen Goldsmith.
Liu told WNYC in an interview that both CityTime and the 911 re-design suffered from the outsourcing of contract oversight.
"We're also highly recommending that the city get away from using another set of consultants to oversee the first set of consultants, but rather use city managers to keep on top of consultants in general," Liu said.
The current Deputy Mayor for Operations, Cas Hollaway, said the Bloomberg administration had "long ago" been aware of the issues raised by Liu and has "taken the measures necessary to address them."
In a statement, Hollaway wrote that "the Mayor established the Office of Citywide Emergency Communications in 2010 to strengthen the governance of the program, and we have filled numerous vacancies."
As for Liu's concern the project lacks independent oversight Holloway said in a statement the City "recently entered into a contract with NASA—after extensive negotiations—to ensure appropriate independent verification and validation on the project."
Sources inside the 911 system workforce tell WNYC there is considerable concern that even after the project is completed it will still be vulnerable to a system meltdown in the event of a high volume call event.
With reporting by Brian Zumhagen