Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hearing on Bloomberg's 911 Fix Raises More Questions - WNYC

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The City Council scrutinized one facet of the Bloomberg Administration's 911 rehab Tuesday, a week after residents filed at least two wrongful death suits alleging loved ones died during the December blizzard in part because of a dysfunctional 911 system and extensive delays in EMS response time.
The hearing, which included three Council Committees, all with jurisdiction, was billed as an update on the Administration's controversial Unified Call Taking System instituted back in 2009.
Lieutenant James McGowan, with the Uniformed Fire Officers, told the council panel that the system -- in which NYPD 911 operators handle the call intake on FDNY assignments then pass on essential information via computer under the new protocol -- regularly generated the wrong addresses and incomplete job sheets.
"I get at least 11 of these a day," said McGowan, referring to the forms the FDNY had to create to keep track of the defective referrals generated by UTC.

The Bloomberg Administration's point-man on the $2 billion 911 rehab project, Skip Funk, was not present at the meeting. So it was just the uniforms on the line of fire with NYPD 911 point-man Deputy Chief Charles Dowd doing his best to keep his testimony confined to the narrow topic the Council had originally scheduled.

Deputy Chief Dowd defended the shift to Unified Call Taking as efficient. But he went around and around with Fire Committee Chair Elizabeth Crowley over whether the UTC was actually adding time to fire responses. He conceded his 911 operators might take as up to two minutes assembling the facts before relaying the call to the FDNY. He said he had no numbers on what the average time his 911 operators were taking.

The Bloomberg Administration starts the official response time clock only after the FDNY gets the call -- excluding the 911 intake time, which the unions argue has gotten longer under UTC. Uniformed Firefighters President Stephen Cassidy called that "Enron accounting."

Response times have become highly politicized. The city has known since September 11, 2001, that its emergency call system's Achilles heel was handling massive call volumes. And as recently as the December 26, 2011, blizzard, callers got busy signals and long waits.

NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd told City Council members the new software the City is testing also has problems and is vulnerable to high volume.

"I can tell you, based on some of the testing we have seen, that the software is, is failing when we do high volume tests against it," he said.

For Councilwoman Gail Brewer that disclosure was only the latest in disappointments having to do with the project.

"The software is a problem, the contracts are a problem and delays obviously means money," Brewer said. "At least for three or four years we have been dealing with the same issues. It's like Silly Putty. We can never quite get out finger on it."

Earlier this year, City Comptroller John Liu blew the time-out whistle on one 911 related contract. He wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and invoked the CityTime payroll contract scandal when referencing his concerns about phases of the 911 overhaul. Liu said parts of the $2 billion 911 fix are prone to poor project management, blown deadlines and cost overruns, with one phase ballooning from $380 million to $666 million dollars.

The Bloomberg Administration said it's spent only $650 million dollars so far. A spokesman insists the new system will be a vast improvement when complete.

The Council pledges another full blow oversight hearing on the whole project.