When 77-year-old Jasper Grier had a heart attack one March evening, he was at the mercy of New York City's 911 emergency phone service. The system let him down that night, say relatives of the now-deceased man -- Grier had a heart attack during a two-hour period when 911 went dead in parts of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Henry Badillo and three friends were boating in an 8-foot dinghy in the icy waters off Long Island when things took a turn for the worst. The group called 911 and told an operator, "We're on Long Island Sound in a boat off the coast. ..." The group had 12 seconds to relay their message before a system glitch cut them off. Unfortunately that wasn't enough time to reveal their location. They died shortly thereafter.

Those incidents, reported by news organizations, are just the tip of an iceberg of evidence that New York's 911 system needs fixing.

Further proof is furnished every time citizens request emergency medical help. A police operator at the main 911 call center in Brooklyn answers those calls, and requests information about the nature of the emergency, the location and the caller's name. The caller is then transferred to an EMS operator who asks for more information from both the caller and the previous dispatcher, then assesses the severity of the emergency. The EMS operator then sends a computer message to the EMS dispatcher who sends an EMS unit.

Inevitably -- whether the situation calls for it or not -- police, fire and EMS all end up at the scene. News accounts report that up to 11 or more first responders will show up because the different agencies can't communicate exactly who and what is needed at a scene, or which field units are available.

The current systems don't have automated vehicle location (AVL) technology, which would allow dispatchers to pick emergency responders in a caller's area and avoid flooding one call with more resources than necessary. Further, the fire department doesn't have caller ID or direct links to the police department. Instead fire personnel literally have to call 911 to get the cops.

A massive consolidation that will change it all is under way. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is more than willing to pick up a cause that failed under the previous administration, is pushing the project.

The police spent $13 million in the late 1990s on a system that never went live because of disputes with a contractor, as well as other delays. The fire department also tried to upgrade its 1970s system and spent seven years and $8 million with little, if any, progress. The Bloomberg administration must avoid such debacles in what has been called a politically delicate situation.

The current administration, however, already implemented a 311 system on a scale that had never been done -- it consolidated more than 40 call centers and 14 pages of phone numbers into a 311 center with more than 300 operators. The center handles more than 30,000 calls every day. Bloomberg tabbed Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Commissioner Gino Menchini to lead the 311 consolidation.

"When we implemented 311, it was the largest 311 implementation ever done," Menchini said. "That's the standard around here. Everything we do is probably larger than anything that's been done."

Chicago and Houston have undergone similar 911 transformations. In fact, having EMS, fire and police operating on the same system is probably more standard around the country than the exception, Menchini said. But nowhere has there been a 911 consolidation project of this magnitude. New York 911 receives 23 calls a minute. That's 12 million per year. No other city has a greater volume of 911 calls.

"It's not going to be an easy road, and it's not because of the volume," said Jim Argiropoulos, who, as director of information services for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, oversaw Chicago's rise

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor