NEW YORK — Operators at the nation’s largest 911 hub were forced to use pen and paper to communicate emergencies to dispatchers this 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 that failed during the Sept. 11, 2001, 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 New York Police Department operator answers. The operator farms out the emergency to the appropriate agency: emergency services, fire, police, or 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 US Sept. 11 Commission concluded that the flaws blocked potentially life-saving 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 still received calls with no trouble, but they filled out information by hand on slips of paper, and runners took the paper to the appropriate dispatcher, located on the same floor, who radioed responders.
It also went down Thursday for about an hour around noon, then again Thursday around 7 p.m. for about two minutes.
Alma Roper, with the union representing the city’s operators, said usually the operator asks questions and types the answers where they are automatically passed to dispatchers.
“You’re losing at least two or three seconds, if not more than that,” said Roper, who started as a 911 operator in 1989.
While the delays might be short, “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.
The 911 system was swamped with more than 10,000 calls per half-hour — 10 times the normal volume — at the height of Hurricane Sandy. Union leaders and officials said the Oct. 29 storm made plain the system’s inadequacies.