The city's 911 system was overwhelmed on the day of the terrorist attacks.

Photo by: Library of Congress

The city’s 911 system was overwhelmed on the day of the terrorist attacks.

On an average day, New York City’s 911 system receives 33,000 calls. On Sept. 11, 2001, it logged more than 50,000, according to former Mayor Giuliani’s testimony to the 9-11 Commission. These included calls from people inside the twin towers asking for instructions on whether to stay or leave or whether to head up or down. In at least a few cases, 911 operators gave the wrong advice. Meanwhile, fire dispatchers went beyond protocol in the number of units they assigned to the disaster. And those problems, experts later noted, paled in comparison to what would have befallen the city if the 911 system itself had been targeted by terrorists.

Taken together, these concerns led the Bloomberg administration to undertake a four-pronged emergency communications transformation program. This included grouping all police, fire and ambulance dispatchers at one Public Safety Answering Center (or PSAC) at MetroTech in Brooklyn, creating a backup 911 center (PSAC II) in the Bronx and getting all dispatchers onto a unified dispatch system.

The plan also called for implementing “unified call taking.” Previously, a caller to 911 spoke to a police operator and then, in the case of a fire, talked to a fire dispatcher. This second conversation consisted of three questions: What’s your address? What’s on fire? What’s your phone number? “Fifteen seconds after that, fire apparatus was out,” one fire dispatcher says. But the Bloomberg administration considered that “a 1960s-era system under which both police and fire call takers separately and redundantly interviewed callers, wasting valuable seconds.”

Under the new unified call taking, the police operator takes all the information and relays it electronically to fire dispatchers. The FDNY soon said the system, introduced in May 2009, reduced response times. But there were glitches. Police operators unfamiliar with getting the information needed for fires made mistakes. The administration moved to address the problem by having fire dispatchers listen in when 911 operators received a fire call. But firefighters say they still regularly get address information that is vague or wrong. According to one contributor on the FDNY Rant website, when he called in a car fire on the Harlem River Drive at 138th Street recently, the operator asked what borough he was in. Then she asked for an address. “Again I told her it was about 138th Street, just west of the Harlem River Drive. Next question was ‘West or East 138th?'”

New technology often causes grumbling, and the fire dispatcher we talked to acknowledged that some of the resistance to the new system can be chalked up to tension between fire dispatchers, who tend to be white men, and 911 operators who are mostly black women. The FDNY points to response times that, since the system was implemented, have dropped to their lowest levels ever, but opponents say FDNY response times don’t capture the time callers spend on the phone before they’re transferred to fire dispatchers.

The rest of the transformation plan also hit snags. PSAC I exists, but not all personnel have been moved there yet. After encountering community opposition to its height and proposed location off Pelham Parkway, PSAC II is now under construction, but the price of its technology contract ballooned to from $380 million to $666 million before being restructured last year under pressure from City Comptroller John Liu.