NYC report: 911 system beset by delays, errors

May 4, 2012 - 4:55 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — The city's overhauled 911 system is beset by delays and errors that could leave callers without help for crucial seconds in an emergency, while the fire and police departments aren't collaborating on how to handle a surge in calls from a massive crisis such as a terrorist attack, a report said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office released an edited version of a consultants' report on Friday. His administration is fighting legal efforts to force it to release earlier versions. When the New York Post first wrote about the report last month, it described a 216-page document, but the version released Friday had 133 pages.

Cas Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations, said the city would immediately adopt two of the report's 14 recommendations and would soon adopt others. Bloomberg will create a working group to consider the report's suggestions and will issue an executive order establishing an ongoing process to improve the system, Holloway said.

The deputy mayor argued that, while the report had exposed weaknesses in the call system, the city's overall response to emergencies had improved.

"Public safety response, I think it's safe to say, is better than it's ever been," he said. "Fire deaths are at an all-time low, and if you look at multiple alarm fires ... they're down 20 percent in the last year, which means we're getting to fires faster and we're getting them out."

The report, initially prepared by outside consultants hired by the city, found that call operators waste time on duplicative questions and employ inconsistent questioning procedures. The system, it found, sends some responders to the wrong address and slows fire and medical dispatchers' efforts to give instructions to callers.

The report follows a yearslong overhaul of the system that included a new $680 million call center that combined the operations of police, fire and medical dispatchers. City officials have said the update improved response times, eliminated inefficiencies and reduced confusion for callers, but Friday's report seemed to call some of that into question.

"Statistical information provided to City Hall management to demonstrate the success of the (Unified Call Taking) project contained errors and does not provide a clear picture of the effectiveness of UCT related business processes," the report said. Holloway said that comment referred largely to the city's practice of not tracking how long it takes from the moment an emergency call is placed until the moment responders are dispatched.

The report called on the city to instead calculate response times starting with the moment a person calls 911 and ending with the arrival of units on the scene. Holloway said the city was already looking into changing its emergency response time calculations and was moving in the direction suggested in the report.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association has been pressing in court for the release of earlier drafts of the report. The city has appealed a judge's ruling that it must release those documents as part of a union arbitration.

On Friday, the union in a statement accused the city of releasing "a radically slimmed down and condensed version" of the consultant's review and said it would pursue its case.

Holloway said that he had never seen a 216-page version of the report and said that it seemed clear the administration wasn't trying to hide the consultants' criticisms.

"If the city wanted to put out a sanitized report about the 911 system, this wouldn't be it," he said.

The consultants also found instances in which the city's fire and police departments failed to work together. The agencies developed their plan to deal with a surge of calls in a crisis without collaborating, even though such an incident usually requires a multi-agency response, the report said. Additionally, the fire department's emergency medical managers weren't involved in developing procedures for police operators who now handle medical calls.

"NYPD call takers did not receive adequate training for (Unified Call Taking) responsibilities and are not proficient at handling FDNY related activity," said the report, which also found that fire dispatch personnel were inadequately trained.

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