City's 911 Emergency System Fails Three Times In The Past Week - Overhaul Is A Must NY Daily News 11/20/09

NY Daily News - November 20, 2009

by Juan Gonzalez

The city's problem-plagued 911 system failed to function properly on three separate occasions this week.

On Tuesday, a part of the system crashed for three hours, preventing NYPD operators from transmitting instantaneous computer reports on fire calls to FDNY dispatchers over the new Unified Call Taking system.

"We had to go back to the old way of doing things," a veteran police operator said. "Each time someone called 911 to report a fire, we had to get a Fire Department dispatcher on the phone to take down the information."

Operators could not even key information into their NYPD computers and had to resort to slips of paper to jot down all 911 call information, the operator claimed.

City officials say a technician at 1 Police Plaza accidentally cut power to the UCT system, and subsequent efforts to reboot the system led to an inexplicable crash. They denied operators had to use paper slips to record other 911 calls.

UCT was launched in May to speed the response time by eliminating the need for city residents to speak with dispatchers from more than one emergency service.

It is part of a vast Bloomberg administration program to modernize the 911 system, but major portions of the program have been riddled with delays and have ballooned in cost to $2 billion.

On Wednesday night, the NYPD and FDNY dispatch networks stopped communicating a second time, this time for about 20 minutes, after problems developed with a Fire Department computer console in the Bronx. Attempts to restart the console caused a crash of the entire FDNY dispatch system, City Hall spokesman Jason Post said yesterday.

On Wednesday morning, a 911 operator did something that has become frighteningly routine of late: She typed a wrong address into the UCT system. After a caller to 911 reported a fire at an apartment building at 470 Lefferts Ave. in Brooklyn, the operator keyed in the location as 570 Lefferts, three blocks away.

The operator did not send out a corrected address until 3 minutes later, FDNY records show. Engine 249, the first unit to reach the blaze, arrived 5 minutes and 35 seconds after the initial report.

By then, the top floors of the six-story building were engulfed in flames. Six people were injured, two of them seriously, including a police officer and a resident who was hospitalized in critical condition.

Post estimated that the address mixup at Lefferts Ave. caused a delay in response time of "about 45 seconds," but he added, "There's no way to really know."

Fire union leaders are claiming that the FDNY's six-minute response time to a second fire Wednesday morning at 654 St. Marks Ave. - where two children and their father perished - was also the result of a wrong address transmitted by the UCT system.

City officials say, and fire records appear to back them up, that the 911 operator accurately passed on the location just as the initial caller stated it. But that location turned out to be wrong.

Still, the transmission of wrong addresses and other faulty information has surged dramatically since the new UCT system began operating, employees of the FDNY, the NYPD and EMS say.

"I've never seen it this bad," another 911 operator said. "Sure, our people make mistakes sometimes, but there are big problems in integrating the police and fire systems that the city refuses to admit."

"We are begging City Hall to begin scrapping the failed UCT and start working on a new 911 system," said Al Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.