Glitch Forced 911 Dispatchers to Pen and Paper


Operators at the nation’s largest 911 hub were forced to use pen and paper to communicate emergencies to dispatchers one day last week when a piece of the new system stalled, the latest glitch in the $2-billion effort to modernize New York City’s aging system, which failed during the Sept. 11 attacks.

City officials said no noticeable delays were reported.

“The replacement of any large, complex system invariably will have kinks that need to be worked out,” spokesman John McCarthy said. “That is why backup systems and procedures are in place to ensure incoming calls are taken and responded to without any noticeable delay.”

The city’s emergency system works like this: Callers dial 911, and a police operator answers. The operator farms out the emergency to the appropriate agency — emergency services, fire, police or sometimes all, depending on what the caller says. Each agency has a separate dispatch to communicate with its responders.

The old system has been in place for decades. On Sept. 11, 2001, operators were unaware that fire chiefs were evacuating the doomed Twin Towers because the city had no way of relaying that information. The federal Sept. 11 Commission concluded the flaws denied people potentially lifesaving information.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, he made it a priority to modernize. The new system uses sleeker, easier technology to access and share information, and in theory, get details to the appropriate responder faster. The $2-billion figure includes a new backup call center being built in the Bronx, the land purchased for that building, and millions in upgrades to the current call center in Manhattan.

The problems this week involve one piece of the giant ongoing overhaul, the new dispatch computer system, rolled out Wednesday on the first hot day of the year, when emergency calls usually spike. It went down for about 12 minutes that day. Telephone operators could still receive calls with no trouble, but they filled out information by hand on slips of paper, and runners took the paper to the right dispatcher, located on the same floor, who radioed responders.

It also went down Thursday for a total of about an hour around noon, then again Thursday evening around 7 p.m. for about two minutes, police and city officials said.

“You’re losing at least two or three seconds, if not more than that,” said Alma Roper, a leader of the union representing the city’s operators. But “when you have a child hit by a car, you don’t have time to waste. And that’s what 911 is about — it’s an emergency.”

City officials said there have been extra personnel on hand to help launch the new technology, and there were people to handle the paper system. No glitches were reported Friday.

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