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911 Call System Plagued With Problems, New Report Says

By Jill Colvin | May 4, 2012 4:47pm
Police, fire and emergency medical services personnel all operate out of the center.
Police, fire and emergency medical services personnel all operate out of the center.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

CITY HALL — The city’s new $2.1 billion 911 call system is plagued with systematic problems that increase emergency response times, according to a scathing new report released by the Bloomberg administration Friday.

The report, which has been the subject of numerous news reports and litigation, paints a picture of a 911 call system hampered by inefficiencies, from redundant questioning to flawed inter-departmental communications.

According to its findings, operators routinely waste crucial seconds by failing to use a consistent set of questions, and sometimes ask the same questions twice. Operators even still begin calls by reciting their operator numbers — even though computers now record them — further wasting time.

“The NYPD and FDNY call takers consume valuable time asking duplicative questions and taking identical actions for the same 911 caller,” read the report, which was produced by Virginia’s Winbourne Consulting and cost the city $500,000.

The report also revealed a persistent failure by the NYPD and FDNY to work together, despite their operators being housed under the same roof. The two departments maintain separate policies, procedures and training standards, and even different geographic data to feed their maps, it said.

“The report clearly notes that there are things that we can do better,” said Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, who stressed that, despite the report’s findings, the city’s switch to its new “unified call system” has made significant strides.

The new city 911 system was introduced two years ago with the aim of integrating separate police, fire and emergency medical response teams under a single system. But it has been plagued with technical difficulties and cost overruns.

The group also accused the city of using inaccurate response times, since the city fails to include the amount of time it takes for a 911 operator to answer a call and loop in the relevant dispatcher — as other cities do.

“This practice inhibits the ability of the NYPD and FDNY Fire and EMS to generate accurate Response Time Information,” the report writes.

The report also revealed a significant spike in the number of 911 calls that appear to have been placed accidentally, which rose from 31 percent of calls in 2009 to 39 percent over the first four months of 2011. The report blamed the proliferation of cell phones and “pocket dialing.”

The report has been the subject of intense speculation after the city repeatedly refused to release an earlier version, despite numerous Freedom of Information requests and a court ruling stemming from a lawsuit by the city’s fire unions in opposition to the call center’s reorganization.

It is unclear how much was changed from the draft version to the final report released Friday.

But the United Firefighters Association charged it had been “heavily edited.”

The Bloomberg Administration today released a radically slimmed down and condensed version of a consultant’s review of New York City’s 911 call-taking system, with a reported 80-plus pages of critiques and analysis removed,” the said in a statement, vowing to continue the court fight for all previous drafts.

But Holloway insisted that the report had not been scrubbed.

“If the city wanted to put out a sanitized report on the 911 system, this wouldn’t be it,” he said coyly, adding that thousands of pages of documents had been produced during the course of analysis.

He said the city intends to act immediately to implement two of the report’s 20 recommendations, including writing an executive order spelling out the city’s call center’s goals and process moving forward. The city will also create a new 911 call processing working group to examine the remaining recommendations, which will begin to meet within the next few weeks.

But while Holloway acknowledged that the current call time calculations are “inaccurate," and said the city would be examining the idea of starting the clock at the beginning of a call, he refused to commit to a change.

“I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver,” he said.

The 911 report was commissioned by the mayor after 2010’s disastrous post-Christmas blizzard response, when emergency systems were jammed, leading to long delays.

The City Council is planning new oversight hearings in light of the findings, a spokesman said.