Good Politics

Good Politics

by / August 3, 2004
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered an overhaul of New York City's 911 system, which commonly keeps New Yorkers from getting prompt attention for medical emergencies.

A local union head said the mayor was feigning interest in public safety to gain favor before next year's election. The union head also said the new system as proposed would make matters worse.

Worse than talking with two dispatchers to get an ambulance to care for a heart attack victim or help a choking baby?

That's what New Yorkers face now. In Chicago, you press 911, and within a few seconds, your whereabouts are known by the operator taking your call. In New York, you may have to repeat the information to get the service you need. You might even be cut off and have to call back.

Not too convenient when you're trying to save your choking baby.

New Yorkers who call 911 should get a response without having to jump through hoops or hang up and call again. They've paid through their noses for better service but haven't received it. The city put a surtax on phone bills in 1992 that has raised $281 million, and according to a recent New York Times article, $115 million of that has been spent on 911-related projects.

The system, however, remains broken. New Yorkers deserve better bang for their buck.

Before the mayor's request, police, fire and EMS were all developing their own systems, but there were no plans to consolidate them. That could have been a disaster on two fronts.

One, the projects could have gone the way of previous projects that were started but never finished. You need look no further back than the late 1990s to find examples, including the $13 million police spent on a CAD system that was never installed, and the $8 million the fire department spent to upgrade their system, which never happened either.

Two -- and this is what the current controversy is about -- is the reluctance on the part of some to give up their own systems, however flawed, for an integrated one. It's that long-standing, seemingly endemic need of some first responder agencies to guard their turf.

It is this protection of territory and unwillingness to change that's been the real political obstacle to getting the 911 system fixed.

New Yorkers should hope that doesn't happen this time.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor