By Dana Liebelson
New Yorkers are living with the fear that their city’s breakdown-prone emergency dispatch system could fail them when they need it most. It’s a fear that other major American cities have lived with for years.
New York City’s system has been under public scrutiny since June, when emergency responders were delayed by four minutes in responding to the scene where a 4-year-old girl was killed after being struck by a car while walking to school with her grandmother. A watchdog agency has launched an official investigation into the system, which cost $88 million and has only been operational since May. In July, the New York Post reported that the system had crashed at least nine times in a single week. It’s also drawn blame for leaving a crash victim unaided on a highway for almost two hours, and marooning a paramedic with a dead body.
Made by a company called Intergraph Government Solutions—whose board is well stocked with former security officials from the George W. Bush administration—the software will soon be coming to Boston, which plans to spend $15 million on its contract.
When 911 systems break, experts say it’s often because under-trained municipal technicians can’t troubleshoot failures in the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) software they rely on. Most malfunctions don’t hamper the collection of callers’ automatically traced location data—instead, the failures affect what happens to the caller’s information after it’s given to a 911 operator. CAD systems power databases that track locations’ call histories, and show where available police, fire, or EMS units are. Breakdowns can leave operators without this crucial information, delaying the speed and accuracy of responses. Many systems are also made to dispatch units with the click of a mouse, instantly transferring CAD reports to mobile computers inside emergency response centers or vehicles—without requiring an operator to use a phone or radio. These functions can fail independently, or as part of a wider system breakdown.