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911 Computer Dispatch System Goes Down Repeatedly

By Jess Wisloski | July 22, 2013 4:47pm | Updated on July 22, 2013 8:09pm
 The union plans to ask a judge to stop use of the city's problem-plagued new 911 system immediately, officials said July 17, 2013.
Firefighters' Union Press Conference
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NEW YORK CITY — Emergency rescuers were forced to take up pencil and paper Monday as the citywide 911 system crashed again several times, resulting in up to 90 minutes of down time, an FDNY spokeswoman confirmed.

The computer-aided dispatch system went down at least nine times over the day, starting at 7:45 a.m., leaving paramedics without addresses to respond to and trying to hunt down victims' missing phone numbers, sources told DNAinfo New York.

"There have been some issues throughout the day with the computer-aided dispatch system," an FDNY spokeswoman confirmed, though she would not elaborate on what the errors meant for those in need of emergency help.

"No calls were lost," said the FDNY in an email. "Technicians are conducting various diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the EMS system problems. The outages have not affected the two other dispatch systems iCAD and Starfire which dispatch police and firefighting resources."

First responders resorted to paper and pencils Monday to record incidents, according to an EMS officers union official, and responders who were en route to a location were unable to pull up basic information about 911 callers, including addresses and phone numbers.

About 200 calls were backlogged in the system at one point, said Vincent Variale, president of the Uniformed EMS Officers Union Local 3621, but by 7 p.m. it had fallen to about 80 calls that had yet to be responded to.

"People were calling up 911, the operators were getting the calls, and they couldn't process it," he said.

Instead of immediately sending the alerts to various dispatchers, as the computerized dispatcher allows, operators would write down a note, and pass it to runners "who are running up, and grabbing a piece of paper with the information written on it, and then running over to the proper [borough's] dispatcher, and then the dispatcher would have to get on the radio, and figure out where the vehicles are, and assign a unit to the scene," he said.

Because the system operates the GPS devices used to track ambulances, the GPS was unavailable, and dispatchers relied on radio conversations to figure out who to assign a job, he said.

"We're working in the dark over here, that's basically what it is. If the dispatcher can't see where you're located, they have to ask the ambulances out on the street where they are."

"It's nuts," he added.

The real-time costs would be longer waits for New Yorkers needing a paramedic, he said.

"Heat exhaustion, you'd probably wait a while; heat stroke you may wait a little less; a gunshot wound would be a priority and a heart attack would be a priority," he said, speaking of the way the dispatchers choose which emergencies get the fastest response. He added that Monday was a light day for the system, with about 30 percent fewer calls than during the peak of the last week's heat wave.

"They have to figure out something with this system, because it's not working," added Variale, who said the $88 million computer-assisted dispatch, a system called iCAD, was the problem. "The more technology they keep putting into the system, the worse it gets."

The FDNY said the current EMS dispatch system was 30 years old, and was set to be overhauled as part of a replacement of the city's 911 system, but had not been updated yet.

"We're moving through and replacing various parts of the system, and eventually we will get around to the EMS CAD," a spokeswoman said.

A mayor's office spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment, but city leaders have defended the program against critics in the past.

Monday's glitch is the most recent in a series that point to the failures of the city's 911 system.

On June 4, a 4-minute lag during an operator shift change slowed the response to 4-year-old Ariel Russo, who was hit by a car and later died, fire officials said.

On July 12, the missteps of a 911 operator who stopped to look up an address instead of dispatching a fire reported in the Bronx preceded the death of Ketty Lamarche, 55, the daughter-in-law of famed Bronx politician Ramon Velez, Sr.

Three others were seriously injured in the fire, including Ramon Velez, Jr.