Fixing 911

A major overhaul will plug a dangerously leaky system.

by / August 3, 2004
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 from a dilapidated 911 system to one of the most efficient in the country. "You've got a lot going on, and you have to jell the system into it in a production environment, and that's not easy."

New York's effort will effectively combine six call centers into two, and develop interoperable police, fire and EMS systems. It will be a major IT overhaul that the city hopes will carry the system through until the next wave of technology hits.

"That's the benefit of using Gino and his group," said John Werbell, a spokesman for the New York City Mayor's Office. "They're looking 30 years out and how we should have things set. Gino has upgraded the stature of DoITT to where it's one of those direct-report agencies. It's a little atypical for cities around the country to have this sort of close relationship between the commissioner and the mayor."

Regardless of what happened in previous administrations, the mayor is determined to see the 911 consolidation through, Menchini said.

"He is driving this, and that is a factor," Menchini said. "He knows exactly what is happening. We have many discussions. There was an attempt to do this in the last administration, and I think ultimately the approach we're taking now is going to be successful."

Menchini and his staff have solicited the advice of others around the country, including Argiropoulos, who said having an IT guy to lead the charge is an advantage. "Without a doubt. The aspect of how you're going to orchestrate and implement has to be a sound, analytical IT mindset that can get the job done while you bring in the user community -- police, fire, EMS."

Argiropoulos stressed that user groups must be involved during planning and implementation -- and it takes diligence and patience. "The sit-down sessions to find what everybody needs ... that's a huge undertaking," he said. "It takes a lot to get those individual first responders to understand, A, what the system can provide and B, what it is they need."

Different Ball Game
Some lessons learned and techniques used to merge call centers during New York's 311 implementation will be applied, but there is more on the line this time and more details to consider.

The nature of 911 calls and having to locate every caller makes this implementation a different ball game than the 311 center implementation, according to Werbell. "If you look at it, we're consolidating call centers, we're improving technology, we're building new space," he said of both the 311 and 911 projects. "But when you drill down [into 911 consolidation], it's a different project."

However difficult to accomplish -- and it was a formidable task -- consolidating call centers into one 311 center is not as daunting as developing a consolidated 911 system. 311 calls can be routed through the phone system, and data collection is not paramount. A caller can report an incident and hang up. The same isn't true of 911 calls, where caller-location information is critical, and wasted time or a disconnection could mean the difference between life and death. That makes efficient transition to the new system crucial.

"Anything they do and any new technology they use has to be tested very rigorously before anything can be introduced," Werbell said. "The technology used, the techniques -- everything has to be working together."

Prior to this consolidation movement, individual agencies, including NYPD, PD Transit and the Housing Police (the three have since been combined), EMS and fire were making proposals to upgrade their individual systems. None were looking to mesh with other agencies' systems.

There was some trepidation when the mayor announced his intent to consolidate, but everyone is on board now, Werbell said. Of course, there were the usual worries that come with organizational change and such a huge undertaking. There was reportedly some concern early on that matters somehow could be made worse by the consolidation.

Menchini and Werbell say that won't happen.

"The city was able to merge different call centers into the 311 center, so we're fully confident that will happen this time," Werbell said. "It's going to happen. They're going to be happy."

A benefit of having DoITT select the technology was its ability to choose an off-the-shelf product based on the overall system's needs, according to Werbell, instead of having a programmer develop the system.

"There are different models that have been applied in cities throughout the country," Menchini said. "Sometimes they're done by technology people, but more often they're done by public safety people."

He added that it is important to have an objective party with experience with large, complex projects manage such a project.

Initially the fact that DoITT is heading the charge may have concerned public safety agencies, but Menchini and staff have developed a "team of teams" by including individuals who were working on consolidation projects within EMS, fire and police.

It's still a major undertaking to get all the different entities to mesh in a short amount of time, Menchini said. "In discussions with every other locality, whether it's Houston or Chicago, getting uniformed service agencies to work together in a tightly coupled manner is not an easy thing to do."

Amen to that, agreed Chicago's Argiropoulos. "I can't stress enough: You must get those user groups involved as you're implementing this, because implementing blind is a disaster waiting to happen." He said a lot of cities failed in attempting similar implementations because the process was done in a vacuum and not in parallel tracks with first responders. "There has to be that mindset that 'we're here to make it better, we're going to get the job done and there's going to be buy-in.' There's not a forced concept but a mutual concept."

Menchini gave no timeline, but said the project is being pursued aggressively and will be done as quickly as possible. "The real challenge is going to be managing a great deal of change in a short amount of time. But that's what we'll do. We've done it here before, and we'll do it again."

The technology also was a concern for some agencies. It is 99 percent certain the choice will be Motorola's Printrak system, which was the police department's initial choice. Other agencies hesitated because they thought they'd be using an application tailored to the police department.

Not true, said Werbell.

"It's an off-the-shelf product that is stable and has been tested around the country. It meets everybody's needs. Printrak has different modules, one for each agency. Everybody gets the custom application they need, but the overall systems are able to share data."

The system can and will be modified to fit each agency's requirements, but all agencies will have the essential components of a 911 system, such as caller ID, and will be on the same page in areas such as city maps, which change often. In the past, the different first responder agencies sometimes had different street maps of the city because some agencies' maps may have been updated while others' had not. That won't happen with the new system, since it will be interoperable and all agencies will be privy to the same information.

"The Printrak application lets people share information without having to ask the same questions again and again and again," Werbell said.

And AVL will be available with the new technology, so dispatchers will send first responders closest to the caller's location, saving time and resources.

Ample Backup
Another early concern was redundancy. A theory put forth was that the six current 911 call center locations were advantageous because they provided backup. If one or more centers went down, calls could be rerouted to another center.

But ample redundancy is part of the consolidation plan. The two new centers will each be fully staffed and have E911 reach over the entire city.

The redundancy issue will improve with the two new facilities, Werbell said, because each will be a fully operational facility that operates at a 50 percent load. If one goes down, the other can take up the slack. "We're enhancing our ability to back up our 911 systems," he said. "There is a backup to the 911 police dispatch. There is a backup to fire [now], but we're going to improve on that. We're making sure if the worst happens, the other center still works."

The site for the first center has been determined but not made public. The search is on for the location of the second, which must be located on a different power grid and water grid than the first.

All this is expected to cost about $1 billion from the city's capital budget, which is funded through bonds. Efficiencies gained from the consolidation are expected to offset some of the cost. For instance, sending only the necessary first responders to a scene instead of flooding a 10-block radius around the scene with multiple first responders, as happens now, will save resources. Also, individual agencies were developing systems of their own, and the aggregate cost would have been comparable, according to Werbell. Plus, there will be just two buildings full of technology to maintain, not six.

It's an expensive, ambitious project, but one that Jasper Grier and Henry Badillo would undoubtedly support.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor