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City's Much-Delayed New 911 System Now Taking Calls

By Jill Colvin | January 5, 2012 8:37pm
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the launch of the city's new 911 system Thurs., Jan. 5., 2012
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the launch of the city's new 911 system Thurs., Jan. 5., 2012
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

BROOKLYN — The centerpiece of the city’s much-delayed $2.1 billion new 911 emergency system is now up and running in Downtown Brooklyn, at a high-tech center capable of processing up to 50,000 calls an hour.

The new $680 million Brooklyn center, at 11 MetroTech Center, brings police, fire and emergency medical dispatchers under one roof for the first time, and uses a new, high-capacity computer system that officials hope will not only speed response times, but provide protection in the case of calamity.

“I think it’s fair to say it’s a world away from the old system we inherited,” said Mayor Michael Bloomerg, who said the old system, first built in 1968, had become “increasingly susceptible to stress, increasingly overburdened and increasingly antiquated,” as the population grew and operators had to deal with the added challenge of cell phones, which make it harder to identify a caller’s location.

The system's vulnerabilities were showcased during 2010's post-Christmas blizzard, when it overloaded and lines jammed

In addition to the extra capacity, the new VESTA system shares data electronically with the FDNY, NYPD and EMS, so they can coordinate responses more easily.

Previously, callers may have been passed along and forced to describe their emergencies to two or even three different operators, Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said.

A new mapping function also pinpoints callers’ locations faster, to avoid confusion between, for instance, 42nd Street in Manhattan and 42nd Street in Queens.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the long-delayed system is helping shave “vital seconds” off response times, noting that 99.9 percent of calls are being answered within 30 seconds or less, and 98 percent within 10 seconds.

The center has been averaging about 30,000 calls a day, or 1,200 an hour, since it became fully operational on Dec. 5.  It's designed to handle a whopping 50,000 calls an hour — nearly 10 times as many as the city logged at its peak the morning of Sept. 11, 2011.

The city is also in the process of building a second, backup center in the Bronx that will be able to shoulder the full call burden in case of a terrorist attack or other disaster that might throw the headquarters offline. That center is expected to open in 2015.

The center's opening comes after a series of delays, cost overruns and technical difficulties that officials blamed mainly on problems with Verizon’s VESTA operating system.

The system was supposed to be complete by the end of 2008. But when the city began testing it, they discovered that it couldn't handle the surge of calls that might come during a major natural disaster or attack — freezing or locking operators users out.

“When we tested it in the test environment and hit it with tens and hundreds of thousands of calls, it didn’t perform well enough,” Holloway said.

After two years of testing in a specially made lab, the system is now performing “exceptionally,” Holloway said, noting that the city has paid Verizon only $20 million toward the big-money project, and will not hand over any more cash until it is complete.

In addition, Glen "Skip" Funk, who was brought in by the city to oversee the project, stepped down after less than a year on the job, and City Comptroller John Liu blocked an attempt by the administration to sign a $286 million contract to build the center in the Bronx, citing similarities with the scandal-plagued CityTime contract. He approved an alternate deal for $95 million last March.

Plans to overhaul the city’s 911 system were launched following the 2003 Northeast blackout, when backup generators at the NYPD’s Brooklyn call center failed and other systems overloaded.

The project was originally budgeted for $1.4 billion, nearly half the current cost. Officials said the previous total did not include the price of constructing the new building in the Bronx, which became part of the plan at a later date.