Mayor De Blasio Orders Review, But There's No Telling When It Will Be Completed

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Accusations of major delays in the city’s 911 emergency response system were the subject of a rally and two City Council hearings on Friday.

Problems with the city’s Unified Call Taking emergency phone system have been going for years, CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported. Issues include delays in response times and confusion about where calls are dispatched to.

The system requires all 911 calls to go to a central office where all of the caller’s information is taken. Calls are then rerouted to the appropriate agency, either police, fire or EMS.

Because it was behind schedule and over budget, Mayor Bill de Blasio already had suspended a Bloomberg-era contract for a technological upgrade to the 911 system.

Now, as WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb reported, the de Blasio administration is examining the existing 911 system with its existing technology.

“It’ll be a unified effort led by our operations division, working with the police commissioner, working with the fire commissioner, to review ongoing day-to-day policies, procedures, supervision, training – the whole nine yards,” de Blasio said.

The mayor said the city wants to make sure the existing system is working as well as possible.

But elected officials, union leaders and others rallied on the steps of City Hall on Friday morning to demand a change to how emergency calls are handled.

“It’s clear that the issue demands a sense of urgency and we are here to convey that sense of urgency to the mayor,” Public Advocate Letitia James said.

“The system is no more dependable today than it was 10 years ago,” City Council member Elizabeth Crowley (D-30th) added.

Many said the system is costing lives and it has to end.

“As soon as somebody calls and an operator picks up the phone, the answer should simply be ‘what is your emergency and where are you calling from,'” said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “And if it’s a fire or medical emergency, that call should be immediately transferred to the fire alarm dispatch for that borough.

“It takes five seconds to move the call to the experts and deal with those emergencies. That will lower response times,” Cassidy added.

“There is no excuse — it’s unacceptable for an EMS dispatcher to have to get the call from a 911 receiving officer three minutes after the call came in,” said Izzy Miranda, president of the New York City EMS Union. “This is a public safety issue.”

Confusion may have delayed fire trucks from getting to the old convent at Saint Joseph Hill Academy on Staten Island, which is still in ruins after an October fire.

Recently released 911 calls reveal dispatchers had to clarify the location six times.

Dispatcher: 857 Hylan Boulevard, this is in Staten Island?
Caller: No, 850 Hylan Boulevard.
Dispatcher: That’s what I said, 850 Hylan Boulevard. This is in Staten Island?

The blaze injured five people, four firefighters and a nun who jumped from the second-floor window.

It’s just one of many problems that have surfaced with the city’s new emergency call system. Just last month, it took an ambulance 21 minutes to get to a Rockaway, Queens fire that killed two young children.

Investigators said the dispatchers failed to properly notify EMS about the emergency, and that the supervisor didn’t ensure proper coverage.

A FDNY supervisor and three dispatchers were suspended following the fire.

After the deadly Dec. 1 Metro-North train derailment in the Bronx, fire crews showed up to houses near the tracks after being told it was a “structural fire,” according to records.

A year ago, there was a four-minute delay in dispatching an ambulance to an Upper West Side car crash where 4-year-old Ariel Russo was clinging to life.

Ariel died and her family blamed her death on the bungled 911 call. They have filed a lawsuit against the city, the FDNY and the NYPD.

“It’s like you’re sending them out on a wild goose chase,” said Lt. James McGowan of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. “People are going to get hurt.”

The firefighter’s union said miscommunication between dispatchers and responders happens far too often.

Mayor de Blasio agrees. He halted the 911 system upgrade project last week and ordered a multi-agency review of delays, errors and cost overruns.

“The more we looked at the 911 situation, the more troubled we got,” he said earlier this month. “So we’ve brought this project to a dead stop.”

On Friday, the city announced that the call processing system will be part of the review.

“When lives are at stake, we have no room for error and we must always strive for perfection,” First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris said in a statement. “The review underway of our city’s entire 911 system by new leadership in each of the agencies involved will provide vital information necessary to ensuring the continued safety and well-being of all New Yorkers.”

“The mayor has made it clear that a comprehensive review of the 911 system is a top priority for his administration to ensure we are providing the most effective emergency response to New Yorkers in need and the FDNY is 100 percent committed to this goal,” incoming Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in a statement.

“This review will help to ensure that the 911 call system operates at an optimal level,” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in a statement.

But how long will the review take? That’s what Kramer attempted to find out on Friday afternoon.

Kramer chased down Director of Operations Mindy Tarlow through Council hallways to get an answer. She first tried to duck by reading her BlackBerry as Kramer was obstructed by an aide.

Kramer: “Can I ask you a simple question? How long do you think it’s going to take and why can’t it be implemented immediately?’

Tarlow: “We haven’t decided on the back end of the review date. We haven’t had a final review date, thank you.”

Kramer followed Tarlow, asking more questions.

“I’m sorry, I can comment later. I can’t comment right this second. I just finished testifying and I haven’t had a chance to discuss this with folks back at the office,” Tarlow said.

De Blasio’s intended approach seems to be a sharp turn from the Bloomberg administration, which repeatedly defended the call system dating to 2004 when the city launched the $1.3 billion upgrade project.

De Blasio has said the project is now years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget. City Comptroller Scott Stringer said his audit division will also investigate possible lapses in management and financial control.

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