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Thread: Overhaul of Creaky 911 System

  1. #1

    Default Overhaul of Creaky 911 System

    April 13, 2004

    Bloomberg Plans Overhaul of Creaky 911 System


    One summer day in 1968, Mayor John V. Lindsay, declaring that he was at "perhaps the most important event of my administration," picked up a telephone at police headquarters and made a ceremonial call to a three-digit number, 911. The call did not go through, so the mayor dialed again. Then again. Finally, someone realized he was using an inside phone line, and pushed a button. With that, the mayor managed to complete the call, and officially launch the city's 911 line.

    Last year, New Yorkers dialed 911 an average of 23 times every minute, using a simple phone number now chiseled into public vocabulary, habit and expectation. Yet the 911 operation that grew since Mr. Lindsay made those first calls is less a seamless network of police, fire and ambulance services than a brittle contraption - fragmented, uncoordinated, and in parts, dangerously obsolete and vulnerable, according to city and emergency response officials.

    Now, with little attention, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has ordered a major overhaul of 911 in hope of making it faster, smarter and safer. New Yorkers have been paying telephone surcharges to improve 911 since 1992, but audits, legislative investigations and mayoral studies all have come to the same conclusion: the city has little to show for the money from those charges, which now totals $281 million.

    Callers to 911 often must provide the same details twice, an exercise in delay that can be followed by a deluge of rescuers, even when only a few are needed. Sending too many people saps resources that may be needed elsewhere, according to a mayoral task force, but no single person or computer tracks all the help available in a neighborhood.

    Police computers automatically display the addresses of 911 callers, an unremarkable function in the digital age. Fire dispatchers, however, cannot see that information. Strict divisions of turf among the emergency agencies, dating to the 19th century, endure in the incompatible dispatch systems of the 21st.

    Not only do the emergency agencies have separate dispatchers using different computers, but they also work in buildings miles apart. So isolated are the dispatchers - geographically, technologically and managerially - that they must, at times, dial 911 themselves to communicate across agency lines.

    "If the fire dispatchers need to contact the Police Department, they actually have to dial back into 911," said Lawrence Knafo, first deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

    With each chamber of the 911 system that a call passes through, the chances for failure multiply, the mayor's task force has found. The structure creates risks that some or all of the system could shut down, the officials say, as was the case last month, when callers from Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island could not reach 911 for two hours.

    Mr. Bloomberg plans to consolidate the city's eight dispatching operations physically and virtually, bringing all the services into two identical centers working on the same computer system. This is an undertaking of vast technical complexity and political delicacy that frustrated Mr. Bloomberg's immediate predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who tried versions of it during his eight years in office.

    Launching 911 may have been among the most important events of Mr. Lindsay's administration; fixing it could prove one of the most difficult of Mr. Bloomberg's.

    "The world continues to get more complicated, but responding to emergencies quickly and with the right resources still makes the difference when lives are at risk," Mr. Bloomberg said through a spokesman. "So whatever we can do to integrate and streamline our dispatch systems will only protect the people of New York."

    No one disputes that 911 is a rickety gateway, but it now handles roughly 12 million calls a year. The system serves powerful forces on both ends of the phone line: the people who dial in seeking help, and the city's public safety agencies, which employ about 60,000 people.

    "On its face, this is the most sensible idea," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. "It will centralize the services and give us backup in case something happens."

    A vocal critic of the approach, however, is David Rosenzweig, a veteran fire dispatcher and the president of the dispatchers' 170-member union. He contends that the plans will make matters worse and suggested that the mayor wanted a ribbon-cutting on a public safety project before next year's election.

    "The system is not configured to provide firehouses with the information that they get now," he said. "It most likely will increase the response time and jeopardize lives."

    That will not happen, said the commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Gino P. Menchini, who is overseeing the consolidation. "We're not going to introduce risks or vulnerabilities," he said. "If David is saying this is a political thing, I don't think he's right."

    Mr. Menchini said he was conscious of the strengths and expertise on which the current 911 operation rests, but that the shortcomings were patent. He and his senior aide, Mr. Knafo, outlined the path a typical call followed to report a heart attack.

    At the main 911 center in downtown Brooklyn, a police operator asks the location of the emergency, its nature and the name of the person reporting it. The call is then transferred to the Emergency Medical Service in another building. There, a second operator swaps badge information with the first one, once again solicits basic information from the caller, then tries to determine how serious the problem is. The E.M.S. operator writes a computer message to an E.M.S. dispatcher, who usually sends two ambulances, one staffed with a crew capable of advanced life support techniques. (If the patient is not seriously ill, the advanced crew can leave.)

    In the meantime, a message from the original police operator prompts the dispatch of a car with two officers. They can help gain entry to a home.

    The E.M.S. operator also alerts the Fire Department, which often has companies available for quick response. Each engine carries five firefighters trained in emergency first aid. That would bring 11 people from three agencies to the scene, Mr. Knafo said. And those 11 might be joined by a police sergeant with a driver, an E.M.S. supervisor, or a pair of officers from the police Emergency Service Unit. A volunteer ambulance corps could also respond.

    Although the Fire Department took control of the Emergency Medical Service in 1996, the two agencies still work on different dispatch computers. The Fire Department system was developed in the 1970's and remains essentially unchanged; in 1999, the department aborted a planned upgrade after investing seven years and at least $8 million, saying that it had been unable to integrate its system with that of the E.M.S.

    During the same time, the Police Department spent $13 million on a computer-assisted dispatch system, but it, too, was never installed after delays and disputes with its contractor. Another Police Department plan, to build a duplicate 911 center, was promised by the Giuliani administration but not delivered.

    A 911 surtax on phone bills, which began in 1992 at 35 cents and increased to $1 last year, has raised $281 million, according to a senior analyst with the city's Independent Budget Office, Bernard O'Brien. Of that, $115 million has been spent so far on 911-related capital projects. Even so, New York, once a pioneer in 911, lags behind Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles in its technology.

    Until 1996, the Chicago system closely resembled New York's, with dispatchers based in three locations and unable to share information. Now, all the dispatchers work in a 15,000-square-foot room on a common computer system that can instantly display information in police cars and fire trucks. The operation is run by one city agency rather than by the individual uniformed services.

    In New York, Mr. Bloomberg moved to unify the system when he realized that the city's public safety agencies had each made separate proposals to improve their dispatching systems, at costs that would reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Mr. Menchini. He likened the proposals to "paving the cow path," or simply building a new road atop an old one, with no consideration of alternative routes. The new investments would have fortified the isolation of the agencies for years to come.

    "The mayor was really troubled that there was no move into integration and interoperability," Mr. Menchini said. "You have systems that reflect the way things always have been done, not the one that might make sense for the 21st century."

    Yet Mr. Rosenzweig contends that the system's problems could be solved for much less than what the city will spend, which he suggests will approach $1 billion.

    A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg did not dispute the billion dollar estimate, but said hard numbers were not available. In any case, Mr. Menchini says, the proposals from the individual agencies, providing no integration, are likely to cost the same or more than the new approach.

    Last spring the mayor assigned Mr. Menchini, who oversaw the creation of the city's 311 number for non-emergency calls, to broker a master plan.

    Two events accelerated the work. The first was the August blackout, which showed that uncoordinated efforts delayed response, especially when calls overloaded 911, according to a report prepared for the mayor. The second event was the loss of the 911 system to parts of the city on March 26, when a Verizon technician mistakenly reprogrammed a telephone exchange in Brooklyn. For about two hours, people calling 911 in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island were met with a busy signal.

    Mr. Menchini said other vulnerabilities exist because of the route that calls follow, from the two 911 centers operated by the Police Department in Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, then back out to dispatchers for each agency.

    The fire dispatchers have bases in all five boroughs; E.M.S. has one in downtown Brooklyn. As calls are routed between those points, they pass through miles of cable and multiple switches, each a potential "point of failure," Mr. Menchini said.

    Mr. Rosenzweig argues that by dispersing the system so widely, the city has backups in case disaster strikes in one area. The fire dispatch centers are directly linked to street fire alarm boxes, and those worked during the 911 failure. The only serious fire during those two hours was reported through a street alarm box.

    Under a consolidated 911 system, Mr. Menchini said, the city is likely to preserve fire alarm boxes, and he says that the duplicate call center will be in a secure facility, on a separate power grid, and with easy access to mass transit for employees.

    Some city officials see Mr. Rosenzweig's criticisms as reflecting his concern that the favorable position his union members enjoy could be jeopardized. Fire dispatchers work at bases in city parks, are the highest paid, but get the fewest calls.

    True, Mr. Rosenzweig says, but he notes that the Fire Department provides the quickest response, arriving five minutes or less 97 percent of the time, and that its dispatchers pass a stringent civil service test. The E.M.S. dispatchers are emergency medical technicians who stay on the phone and provide first aid instructions until help arrives. The people with the highest work load - the operators who take the 911 calls - work for the Police Department and are the lowest paid of the system employees.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    April 19, 2004

    That 70's Emergency System

    Dialing 911 in New York nowadays will get you a city worker using antiquated equipment in a surprisingly uncoordinated emergency response network. The nation's largest emergency call system is in fact downright quaint, complete with Fire Department dispatchers who don't even have caller ID. Add to that a turf-conscious and hidebound culture among emergency workers, and it's clearly time to hit the panic button on 911. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has now done so.

    The mayor's new 311 call center for nonemergency calls has already reduced the overburdened 911 load by a quarter-million queries, to about 12 million last year. But the blackout last August and a Verizon mishap last month revealed other weaknesses. The mayor's answer is to overhaul 911 by consolidating fire, police and emergency medical services shoulder to shoulder in front of state-of-the-art equipment.

    The job will take years to complete, and may cost $1 billion. But rethinking and upgrading current operations and building a central command center seem a wise investment that will help residents in everyday emergencies like heart attacks and fires. A necessary part of the plan is the construction of a backup site to prevent disruption of emergency services if the main site is ever disabled. New York can learn from similar upgrades in Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.

    The new system is expected to streamline the calling system. Right now a 911 caller has to provide the same information to two different operators before one of them alerts a dispatcher to send help. The process is dangerously time-consuming. Dispatchers who now depend on callers for directions would have computer screens with maps. A further enhancement should allow responders to pinpoint the location of callers who use cellular phones, which might have helped to find four teenagers who drowned last year after their distress call from a small boat.

    The mayor still needs to extract a pledge of cooperation between police and firefighters, who have sometimes allowed departmental competition to get the better of them, most tragically on 9/11. The services were to have agreed months ago to a protocol on how to handle responsibilities in a disaster, and there is still no agreement. That protocol is essential to any makeover of the city's emergency response system.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  3. #3


    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.


    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

  4. #4
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    Oct 2002


    Report Cites ‘Mismanagement’ in Overhaul of City’s 911-System

    Agency Says Unfinished Modernization Has Cost Hundreds of Millions More than Planned

    by Mara Gay and Pervaiz Shallwani
    Feb. 6, 2015

    “Persistent mismanagement” of the city’s overhaul of the 911 system has left the project incomplete, resulted in years of delays and added hundreds of millions of dollars to its cost, according to a report by the city’s Department of Investigation.

    The overhaul was started in 2004 by then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg after troubles with the system during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the widespread blackout of 2003.

    The DOI, the city’s anticorruption agency, found the project’s cost, at $2.03 billion, is at least $700 million over budget. It alleges that City Hall exercised improper oversight over contractors and that “senior program management” overstated their progress to top Bloomberg aides on fixing the system, which handles about 30,000 calls a day.

    The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio halted work on the 911-modernization project in May, saying it wanted to conduct a full review.

    DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said he was asked by Mr. de Blasio to investigate whether there was any criminal misconduct; he said he found no evidence of any.

    He said the 911 project echoed the City Time scandal, in which three city contractors were convicted in 2013 of cheating taxpayers out of millions in the remaking of the city’s automated pay system under the Bloomberg administration.

    “City Time is different because there was criminal misconduct there that we did not find here. Having said that, I would say the level of mismanagement and failure to manage the project was certainly on a level with that,” Mr. Peters said in an interview. Mr. Peters is an appointee of Mr. de Blasio and served as his campaign treasurer during the 2013 mayoral race.

    Former Bloomberg administration officials couldn’t immediately comment on some of the allegations outlined because the DOI barred news organizations from seeking outside comment as a condition of the document’s early release to the media.

    But Bloomberg officials, anticipating a sharply critical report, sought to brief reporters recently. They described the 911-system overhaul as “an overwhelming success.”

    “It works,” said former Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, who oversaw the project at City Hall, in a report of more than 100 pages released last month to address the administration’s handling of the 911 project.

    “It is faster, has more capacity, new backup infrastructure, and is more stable and reliable than ever before; as a result, emergency response times are faster—and measured more accurately—than ever before.”

    Mr. Holloway and other former top Bloomberg officials also have denied that they mismanaged contractors, saying they “aggressively” negotiated with vendors and in 2008 reached a settlement with one contractor, Hewlett-Packard Co. , in which the firm agreed to pay the city $33 million, more than had been spent under the contract to date.

    They said the budget was increased once—also in 2008—when they decided to build a new backup 911 call center instead of renovating a building over security concerns. That decision added about $700 million to the program, they said.

    But Mr. Peters said Thursday that the probe found hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden costs associated with the overhaul that weren’t included in the project’s budget, with some project costs paid out of individual agency budgets.

    Former Bloomberg administration officials have said they reported the project’s budget accurately.

    The report outlined seven recommendations for large-scale technology projects in the future, including the appointment of an independent integrity monitor. It noted that the administration has already begun to implement some of the recommendations.

    DOI officials said they interviewed five city employees who said senior program management regularly sought to “sanitize,” “soften” or “spin” negative information by using the voluminous, color-coded status reports they filed with City Hall to overstate progress on the 911 project.

    The overhaul centralized dispatchers for the New York Police Department, the Fire Department of New York and EMS in a single facility and built a new call-taking system. A third piece of the project, the construction of a backup call center, is scheduled to be completed in 2017.

    “The police system they largely got up and running, the fire department system as of a year ago, not at all so,” Mr. Peters said, “and the communication between the two, not anywhere where it should be.”

    DOI investigators began tackling questions about the project in 2013, when there were delays responding to deadly incidents and brief outages after the FDNY began using part of the new 911 system following its full launch in May of that year.

    Mr. Bloomberg asked then-DOI commissioner Rose Gill Hearn to investigate four outages to the 911 system and a four-minute delay in dispatching an ambulance to reach 4-year-old Ariel Russo, who died June 5, 2013, after a car accident on the Upper West Side. That investigation attributed the delay to human error and found that the outages didn’t contribute to a delay in response.

    The report, however, “showed the need for added staffing, training and computer hardware,” Ms. Hearn had said, and laid out several recommendations to fix those issues.

    Former Bloomberg officials said recently that a DOI preliminary report on the 911 system, released last August, was politicized and they expected this report would be handled similarly.

    “The forthcoming report will appear to be objective and thorough; but if DOI’s initial report last August is any indication, it will be neither,” Mr. Holloway said in last month’s briefing on the 911 system.

    Mr. Peters said the probe wasn’t about politics. “It is important to me that this not become about personalities,” he said. “This isn’t about personalities. This is about getting it right.”

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