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As 911 Modernizes, Bad Weather Trumps Technology

by Gail Robinson, Jan 10, 2011
 
2010 blizzard

In March 2004, a Verizon employee working on a bank's phone lines inadvertently input some incorrect numbers. For two hours that followed residents of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island calling 911 received a busy signal.

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The incident provoked immediate concern. ''We don't have an adequate backup system for 911, which is more important than ever as we fight the war against terrorism," City Councilmember Peter Vallone said at the time.

That breakdown, combined with failures in the system during the previous summer's blackout, prompted Mayor Michael Bloomberg in April 2004 to embark on a major revamping, streamlining and modernization of the 911 emergency system, which began taking calls in 1968.

It was an ambitious goal. Jim Dwyer and Edward Wyatt of the Times called the effort "an undertaking of vast technical complexity and political delicacy that frustrated Mr. Bloomberg's immediate predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani." Giuliani tried to revamp the system several times during his eight years in office.

It has almost certainly frustrated Bloomberg as well. While the city points to some successes and progress, the program has fallen behind schedule while going over budget. Whatever the reasons, the new system "hasn't performed well at all," said Jerome Hauer, a former director of the city Office of Emergency Management, who has been a frequent critic of the Bloomberg administration. "It's been a colossal disaster. It has not met the timetable, and it is not doing what it intended to do."

The many problems with the 911 system during last month's blizzard, when the backlog of calls exceeded 1,000 and at least some people did not get desperately needed help, has focused attention on the city's emergency communications systems and the problems the city has encountered in bringing it into the 21st century.

Snowed Under

Along with the Sanitation Department, the city's emergency response system has borne the brunt of criticism over the city's handling of the Dec. 26 blizzard.

[The City Council will begin hearings today on the overall response to the blizzard. For our story on the council's plans, go here.]

On the day after the storm, 49,478 calls came into the system -- the sixth highest number on record. The next day, the system took about 38,000 calls. At one point, there was a three-hour backlog for priority calls, including medical emergencies, and a 12-hour backlog overall.

A number, the mayor later said, did not concern genuine emergencies. Some New Yorkers called 911 for rather trivial matters because 311 also experienced difficulties as Verizon truck lines reached capacity.

Whatever the reasons, the 911 calls poured in, and as they did, not enough people were on hand to take them. When operators dispatched ambulances, some of them could not get through the city's snow clogged streets. In the days following the blizzard, relatives and friends blamed the slow emergency response for the death of a 73-year-old man in Kensington, Brooklyn, and a newborn baby in Crown Heights.

Responding to widespread reports of backlogged calls and marooned ambulances, Bloomberg told reporters he was "extremely dissatisfied with the way our emergency systems responded" and said the recently appointed director of emergency communications, Skip Funk, would review what went wrong.

Last week, Bloomberg replaced the head of the 911 system -- Joseph Peruggia -- with another career Fire Department person, Abdo Nahmod. Bloomberg said he did not hold Peruggia responsible for the shortcomings in the 911 response, but added it was time for a "new guy."

Peruggia's reassignment -- he will stay with the department in some capacity -- was met with some skepticism. Whatever his performance, Peruggia was not the person who made the early -- and apparently pivotal decision -- to not declare a snow emergency as the storm moved in.

Patrick Bahnken, president of the union that represents city paramedics, called Peruggia's removal "an outrage," and blamed "overwhelming logistical failures" for problems in the 911 system during and immediately following the storm, according to the Times.

"Making examples of people who don't have the authority to call snow emergencies, coordinate agencies, plow streets or do more than work with the resources given to them is not the answer to the problem," City Councilmember Jumaane Williams said in a statement. "The responsibility lies with those who are in charge. "

(Perrugia reportedly could face unrelated charges from the city Conflicts of Interest Board.)

In condemning the 911 response, Bloomberg said whatever problems the system might have had on Dec. 26 and the days immediately after could not be blamed on technology. "The technology was not the culprit," the mayor said.

The new system will be able to handle the volume of calls, according to Funk. "What we have seen in every crisis over the last number of years is that the spike in the number of calls can be easily handled when we get these new systems in place," he said.

Streamlining 911

The technology, though, has had its difficulties. The plan originally announced by the city in 2004 -- known as the Emergency Communication Transformation Project -- called for unifying the emergency system. Under the old system, people would call a 911 operator who would in turn connect them to either a police, fire or emergency medical dispatcher who would take information again and then some.

When the new system is completely in place, all dispatchers would work either from a location in downtown's Brooklyn's Metrotech Center or from a back-up center -- still to be built in the Bronx. The 911 operator would take the call and then -- via computer message -- dispatch the appropriate emergency service.

The city has already moved all Emergency Medical Service dispatchers and the Brooklyn, Staten Island and Manhattan fire command centers into the new facility in Brooklyn.

There are other features as well. Dispatchers would automatically be alerted of the name and location of the caller as the request for help came in. In 2008, the system became able to receive photos from callers.

In May 2009 -- more than a year behind schedule -- parts of the unified system went into effect. Initially, reports surfaced of dispatchers relaying the incorrect addresses to the fire dispatch system. The administration concluded this was not the fault of the unified calling system and now uses it for all structural fires.

In the following fiscal year -- from July 2009 to June 2010 -- fire emergency response time fell by six seconds, according to administration figures. Response to medical emergencies increased by one second, but in the Mayor's Management report, the city blamed some of that on the closings of two hospital emergency rooms in Queens and St. Vincent's Medical Center in Manhattan.

Unions have opposed the unified calling approach. While much of that undoubtedly springs from a desire to protect their members' jobs, some outsiders say fire department dispatchers have specific expertise -- on types of fires for example -- that improves the response to certain emergencies.

"The notion of bringing police and fire into the same location sounded like a good concept, but it has done nothing to enhance communication between the two," said Hauer.

Time and Money

Over the years, the cost of the program has risen from $1.3 billion to more than $2 million. Meanwhile parts of it also fell two years or more behind schedule.

Early in 2010, the city removed Hewlett-Packard, the contractor charged with integrating the call system, because of poor performance and cost overruns. In one case, according to Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News, Hewlett-Packard had to submit 15 floor plans to the police department before getting one accepted.

Key software from Verizon -- Vesta, which is supposed to automatically give a 911 operator the name and location of the caller -- failed preliminary tests. Concerned about delay and overruns, the city will try to get Verizon to reimburse the money it received for Vesta.

Earlier this month, City Comptroller John Liu rejected a $286 million contract for the 911 project. The contract with Northrop Grumman was for the Bronx back-up call center. In a letter to Bloomberg, Liu said the deal raised issues similar to problems with the wildly over-budget CityTime computerized payroll project, including "significant cost overruns."

Noting that Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith is reviewing city technology projects in the wake of the disclosures about CityTime, Liu said Goldsmith should also look at the emergency communication contracts "to head off even more significant problems."

The city also encountered longstanding animosity between the police and fire departments, with some critics charging the administration sided with the police department in disputes over jurisdiction. And, some critics say, the project called for a level of technological sophistication well beyond that of many of the fire department veterans entrusted with it. This complicated the job for at least some of the vendors, some experts say.

Underlying all this are charges the administration -- to some extent -- has mismanaged the project. In 2009, Paul Cosgrove, the commissioner of the city's Department of Information, Technology and Telecommunications resigned amid increased concern about backlog and snafus at the project. Recently, the mayor appointed Funk, who had worked on Chicago's system, as the city's new director of emergency communications.

"This is supposed to be the mayor's forte," said Hauer, "and he certainly has not shown his management capabilities."

Preparing for the Next Storm

While the 911 upgrade hardly looks like one of Bloomberg's shining successes -- at least so far -- any links between the problems in improving the call system and the delays and backlogs in last month's storm appear tenuous at best.

"The dispatchers can only do so much," said Glenn Corbett, a fire safety professor at John Jay College. Ambulances must be available to respond to the calls and able to navigate the streets.

One dispatcher, speaking with the Times, put it more bluntly. "It was hell," the dispatcher said. "It was call after call after call. Nobody plowed the streets. How can we protect the city like this?"

Corbett, Hauer and other experts see a number of ways to get those ambulances out there. Corbett suggests the ambulance team with snowplows that could clear the way for them.

To some extent, this did happen, according to a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management, although it was a little too late. During the snow the city appointed a task force to deal with stuck ambulances. It included representatives from the various agencies involved. Eventually the group decided to send convoys to unearth stuck ambulances, which included a salt spreader and a police department tow truck.

Corbett said the city could also look at how the system prioritized calls among the huge number that poured in. Following the storm, one unnamed paramedic cited this as a key problem, telling the Times the emergency medical system "even responded to a call of hiccups."

Hauer thinks the city might want to invest in better equipment. The city's ambulance fleet is not able to handle tire chains.

"You don’t need to have every ambulance in New York a big Hummer type ambulance, but you do need to have a certain percentage of your ambulances and police cars able to work and function in severe weather," Hauer said.

The city directs its ambulance drivers to get as close as they can to a patient. In the storm, the mayor said, that could have resulted in more ambulances getting stuck on streets, something that would not have happened had the streets been plowed, salted or sanded in the first place. "Perhaps they could have stayed further away and walked in to the places rather than try to get down the secondary roads," Bloomberg said.

In that event, the city might also need to have larger crews to respond to some calls during a storm. "They can't carry a person out of a building in a snowstorm with just two people," Corbett said.

Now that the snow is largely gone -- for the time at least -- Corbett would like to see the city take a close look at where the problem calls were, how agencies cooperated -- or didn't cooperate -- and how to get people out of buildings during a blizzard. "It's important," he said, "to have a full, independent inquiry into not only the dispatchers but the entire emergency response system."

The administration, along with City Council, has promised to conduct a study. Whether the various investigations will be independent, substantive or, most importantly, really able to make a difference before the next emergency, should become apparent in the days and weeks to come.




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