Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, Chair of the Fire & Criminal Justice Committee, along with City Public Safety Chair Peter Vallone Jr., and City Technology Chair Fernando Cabrera, held an oversight hearing on the Bloomberg Administration’s Unified Call Taking (UCT) system, the city’s 911-system upgrade that was launched on May 4, 2009. Testifying on behalf of the Administration was Deputy Chief of the NYPD Communications Division Charles Dowd and Chief of FDNY Communications Robert Boyce.
In response to the hearing Council Member Elizabeth Crowley (D-30, Queens), Chair of the Fire & Criminal Justice Committee, stated: “I am bewildered that after a two-billion dollar investment, ten-years of development and a year and half after its launch, the Administration cannot provide answers to the questions about why the Unified Call Taking system is failing and how they plan to fix it. To date, this 911-system upgrade has proven to be flawed, unreliable and dangerous– and New Yorkers are paying the price. The one thing the UCT system has succeeded in doing is spinning emergency response times to justify budget cuts to the FDNY.”
Council Member Crowley also provided the following testimony at the City Council Fire and Criminal Justice Committee:
“Good morning. My name is Elizabeth Crowley and I am Chair of the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee. I want to thank my Co-Chairs Peter Vallone, Jr., and Fernando Cabrera, for joining me in putting together this important hearing. This is an oversight hearing on the status of the Unified Call Taking system (“UCT”).
“As many of you know, the UCT system is an integral part of the Emergency Communications Transformation Program (“ECTP”), directed by Skip Funk, who is not here today, and falls under the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Emergency Communications.
“Following the attacks on 9/11 and the blackout of 2003, which exposed operational and technical vulnerabilities in the 911 system, the ECTP began taking shape in 2004 and the UCT system was launched in 2009. Although it was planned as an upgrade the system has been entangled with serious flaws.
“The ultimate goal of ECTP and UCT “is to save lives and reduce call time by improving the reliability of 911 operations,” (according to testimony from former Deputy Mayor of Operations Ed Skylar at the first oversight hearing on UCT, December 10, 2009). But the fact is after the launch of UCT, 911 call takers sent fire units to the wrong address at least 590 separate times. And a reported 20,000 New York City resident addresses in the fire dispatch system are not recognized in the police system.
“We cannot forget the back to back mistakes under the UCT where fire units were dispatched to the wrong addresses, sent in the wrong direction: one at St. Marks Place in Brooklyn where a father and two young children died and another in Woodside, Queens which resulted in the death of three more New Yorkers.
“However, here we are on February 1, 2011, more than a year and a half after the launch of the UCT system that is included in the overall 2 billion dollar ECTP investment. After reinstating fire dispatchers to the 911 system following a string of call taking errors during the final months of 2009, the Bloomberg Administration has now begun to change the way the City measure response time. As recent as yesterday, the FDNY Commissioner boasted a record low response time based on excluding the police call taker time on the initial call.
One of the goals of this hearing will be to get at the heart of how we measure response time and determine how we can make ‘timing’ a more open and transparent process. What is even more concerning is that when the City needed emergency service the most in recent months, the system crashed on at least two separate occasions:
• On September 16, 2010, following the two tornadoes and macroburst, I, myself, was in need for help in reporting a fire but could not get through to 911 because the system was not taking calls.
• During the 2010 Christmas Blizzard, StarFire, the FDNY’s dispatch system, was overwhelmed and crashed because 911 call takers were sending the fire department on calls that they were not, and should not have been, responsible to respond to. For the past month the City Council has listened to testimony from New Yorkers in every borough who waited too long for 911 to answer their call.
“My primary concern, and why we are holding this hearing today, is that we are investing billions of taxpayer dollars on a new system that does not seem to be working and is supposed to replace a system that was never broken.
“Nevertheless, here we are here today, despite ECTP having an overall budget of $1.8 billion through the completion of PSAC 2, the plan continues to miss deadlines, incur cost overruns and dump seemingly endless sums of money into upgrading this system at a time when the city is looking to close fire companies and reduce staffing at 60 engine companies. I would hope it goes without saying -it doesn’t matter how much you upgrade the 911 system if you don’t have firefighters ready in firehouses to respond to the calls.
“I’ll now turn it over to my Co-Chair, Chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, Peter Vallone Jr.”