Scathing NYT editorial, about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's scandalous 911 emergency dispatch system.
New York’s blizzard of 2010 revealed serious weaknesses in the city’s 911 emergency dispatch system. With separate telephone facilities for police, fire and ambulances, many callers had to speak to two or three different operators. There were delays and mistakes and at one point 1,000 callers were urgently waiting for help.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved to speed up what is now a $2 billion plan to consolidate the 911 systems. But a new consultant’s report, released by the Bloomberg administration only after a judge’s order, raises worrisome questions about the new system’s effectiveness.
The report says that operators are still asking too many questions: about the location of the emergency, borough, address, cross streets, whether it is a residence or building, apartment and building floor, the caller’s name and phone number — before finally asking what the emergency is. Only then is the right operator typically brought into the conference call and a vehicle dispatched.
The report does not say that response times have slowed because of the duplicative questions — the city insists times have improved with the new system. But the report argues that things would move faster if operators answered: “911. What is your emergency?” and then conferenced in the relevant department while the rest of the information was sought. Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway will only promise that the city will study this recommendation. The report also raises questions about the way New York calculates response times. Instead of starting the clock from the second the 911 call is placed, as other cities do, it counts from the time an emergency vehicle is dispatched. That makes response times look shorter. But New Yorkers need to know how long it takes from the time they dial for help to when that help arrives.
The new system is supposed to be able to handle 50,000 emergency calls an hour, 40 times more than the average daily volume now. But the report concluded that the Police and Fire Departments have still failed to plan coordinated responses for operators and dispatchers to major emergencies like a blackout or terrorist attack. The departments need to develop formal procedures and training to work together when there is such an event and calls surge. Mayor Bloomberg has a lot more work to do.