The New York Times
July 3, 2007
For $1.5 Billion, New York Plans a Much-Delayed Overhaul of 911
Rob Bennett for The New York Times
The proposed site of a second 911 call center on Waters Place in the Bronx was once home to baseball fields.
By AL BAKER
After years of delays, and some notable failures, the city’s 911 call system is getting a $1.5 billion overhaul that will include a backup center and will, for the first time, consolidate operators and dispatchers from all of the emergency services in two centers, according to aides to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Under the plan, Police Department workers will take emergency calls, as they do now. But rather than transfer fire and medical calls to fire and medical operators — forcing callers to repeat themselves — the police operators will send computer messages to dispatchers from those agencies.
Financing for the project will be spread over at least three years, officials said, and will include $8 million in federal funds.
Remaking 911 is not a new idea. City officials have tried and failed to modernize the 911 system even as other cities like Chicago and Los Angeles have finished major upgrades. Mayor Bloomberg — who laid out his vision for fixing the system in 2004 — visited the Chicago 911 center last October.
Now, administration officials say, a new 911 call center in Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center is nearly finished, and city lawyers are preparing to go to court to seize 8.9 acres of land in the Bronx as the site for a second center. Vendors are also working to integrate 911’s three computer systems.
The plan calls for operators and dispatchers for all the city’s emergency agencies to be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder by March 2009 in the new call center on the third floor of 11 MetroTech. Ground would be broken on the second full-service center in the Bronx by July 1, 2009, well into the last year of Mr. Bloomberg’s second term. When both are up and running, the two centers will share the load of the city’s 911 calls, with each taking about half of them.
Mayor Bloomberg sees the new system as a priority, one that could be a large part of his legacy, according to an April memo from Edward Skyler, the deputy mayor for administration. Getting much of it done now, the memo stressed, will guarantee its completion under the next mayor.
“Achieving these goals will make it very difficult for a future administration to cancel this project, and, conversely, not achieving them will put this vital public-safety initiative at risk,” according to the Skyler memo, which sets firm timelines for the project. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta support the plan, their spokesmen said yesterday.
The city’s 911 system — which handled 11 million calls last year — is fragmented and uncoordinated and relies on antiquated technology. It has been knocked out several times, collapsing, for example, for 67 minutes on Super Bowl Sunday in 1999. It faltered three more times that year, and it shut down for two hours in parts of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens in 2004.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the city’s 911 operators were sitting in Downtown Brooklyn, across the East River from the World Trade Center, and Bloomberg administration officials have wanted to locate a second call center far apart from the first.
The idea of a backup 911 center was conceived at the start of the 1990s. But important deadlines were missed. After the 1999 breakdown, Howard Safir, who was then police commissioner, said it could take two more years to build a backup site. Work began on a site next to Police Headquarters in the fall of 2001, but was abandoned months later during the budget shortfall that followed the terrorist attacks.
Jerome M. Hauer, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management from 1996 to 2000, praised the “consolidation of communication and dispatch functions” in the new plan but warned of dangers “if it becomes a police monopoly on decisions on who goes to what jobs.”
One plan for a dispatch system was canceled in 1998 due to delays and disputes with the vendor. This time, one emergency communications expert said, officials will have to be vigilant in holding the technology contactor’s “feet to the fire.”
“If they get a bad contractor, then they will get fleeced,” said R.P. Eddy, a senior fellow for counterterrorism at the Manhattan Institute who has been a leader in a national initiative to enhance 911 phone systems.
Hewlett-Packard has been hired as the plan’s technology contractor. Paul J. Cosgrove, the commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, said that a second contractor, Gartner, had been hired to monitor the first one. “We are absolutely riding herd on them,” Mr. Cosgrove said.
The timeline — workers side-by-side by March 2009; the Bronx building’s groundbreaking by July 2009 — is tight, city officials concede. Any move to condemn the Bronx land, at 1200 Waters Place, and seize it through eminent domain must come after environmental impact studies and public hearings. Those would stretch into the fall of 2008. Years of court battles could follow.
“They condemn it, we get lawyers to oppose it, it goes to a judge to set a price,” said Martin J. McLaughlin, a spokesman for the site’s current owner, the Simone Development Company. He said the company obtained the 8.9 acres when it paid the state about $6 million for a 42.8-acre parcel of undeveloped land in 2003. “This thing could go on,” he said.
Still, city officials and Mr. McLaughlin agree that a sale can be negotiated. In an interview, Mr. Skyler said the city’s timeline factors in any potential condemnation proceedings, which he said would be “an open-and-shut case.”
David J. Rosenzweig, a veteran fire dispatcher and the president of the dispatchers’ 200-member union, was highly critical of the plans. He said the second center might not be ready until 2012, which would leave the first center running without the appropriate kind of backup for too long. While he said that the 911 system is “overburdened,” he was adamant that allowing workers from one agency to handle all calls would cause additional delays.
“This is simple — this is not going to work,” Mr. Rosenzweig said. “Generic or unified call takers are not going to work.”
But Mr. Skyler warned of the consequences if the city does not act. “This is a complex and ambitious project,” he said. “But not undertaking it means keeping a 20th-century system at a time when the city needs to be prepared for every eventuality.”
City officials say the new system will reduce emergency response times because callers to 911 will not have to provide the same details multiple times, as they sometimes do now.
That system can cause delays of seconds or minutes — or send too many or the wrong kind of responders to crime scenes, fires or medical emergencies. The new plan will allow the city to better “coordinate multi-agency responses to emergencies,” according to Mr. Skyler’s memo.
Each of the two call centers also will have an evacuation plan under the new system, including provisions for emergency transportation to the sister location.
The new system will use phones known in the industry as “soft phones” because they are embedded in computers, and “everything is fully redundant, so if a line gets cut, there are no single points of failure in the system,” Mr. Cosgrove said. He said there are also plans to feed images from street cameras into the 911 call centers.
Greg R. Sheehan, a spokesman for PowerPhone, a 911 training and technology provider, said city officials “are trying to streamline their operations, and it is certainly in line with what we are seeing nationally.”
“I think it’s doable,” he said of the city’s plan. “It’s an initiative that will pay dividends in New York, as they are coming at it from the point of improving services to the citizens.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company