Commentary Magazine


Bloomberg’s Potentially Deadly Legacy

Yesterday a local newspaper reported:

Part of the city’s problem-plagued 911 system failed so many times yesterday that [Fire Department] dispatchers were forced to revert to using pen and paper to jot down calls, while patrol cops were enlisted to take victims to hospitals.

Problems were so rife that by afternoon, cops were told to call their department’s own Emergency Service Unit for help, sources said. Otherwise, they were to transport victims to hospitals in their radio cars.

Sounds like an item from a disaster, a terrorist attack or perhaps, sadly, Detroit. That system-wide shutdown of emergency services took place in New York City just this week, the New York Post reported. The issues with the 9-1-1 system and emergency responsiveness have been heavily reported by the Post in the last several weeks, especially after an incident during last week’s heat wave involving a mayoral candidate and several members of the media. With cameras rolling, an intern at an event for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn collapsed in the heat. After waiting for over thirty minutes for an ambulance to arrive, Quinn decided to call in the big guns: not Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but instead Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Quinn’s staff made a second call while waiting, to a Jewish volunteer ambulance service called Hatzolah. Despite receiving the call after 9-1-1 dispatchers and despite 96-degree temperatures on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (Hatzolah’s Orthodox volunteers had been fasting, without food or water, since 8 p.m. the night before), Hatzolah arrived first, treating and whisking the intern away before the city’s ambulance arrived. The FDNY blamed the delay on a shortage of ambulances, a spike in call volume, and the low priority given to the intern, who had been reported as conscious and responsive by the individual who placed the initial 9-1-1 call. An anonymous individual affiliated with the ambulance corps, the EMS, had another story:

A move to modernize city ambulance records has become a technical nightmare for city EMTs, who told The Post the system is leading to delays and slower response times.

The new tablet-computer-based system for recording ambulance calls has been hampered because the devices often freeze up and can’t send information when a Wi-Fi signal is unavailable, sources said.

“It’s a very weak wireless system, but the city got what they paid for,” groused one technician. “They were too cheap to pay for a stronger system.”

Instead of recording vital information about each “aided” case on paper, EMS technicians are required to enter data on the tablet. A wireless router is attached to the EMS truck and provides the Wi-Fi signal.

But when a signal can’t be found, or is weak, the ambulance crews struggle to submit the data, which is mandatory before heading off for new emergency calls.

The system, a $2 billion boondoggle, was well known for its limitations before its implementation in May. In March the Post was given a confidential report on those limitations:

Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial $2 billion effort to modernize the 911 system — billed as a cure-all for every emergency-communications ill — was labeled a boondoggle by the city’s own experts two years ago, The Post has learned.

The project “does not have a defined business case” for spending $2 billion on a new 911 system, Gartner Consulting told City Hall in a March 2011 report marked “draft — confidential.”

The consultant’s 45-page report, reviewed by The Post, explained the city was wasting its money by plowing ahead without resolving key problems. It slams the high-tech system for management failures and computer glitches, and clobbers key communications officials for refusing to cooperate and, instead, battling over turf.

The consultants report also found:

* Repeated failures of the emergency-response software were reported but were not fixed.

* The NYPD refused to merge its system for dispatching units with that of the FDNY and the EMS — although that was a key reason for creating the new system. And the departments would not work together to create a unified management structure for the new system.

With Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaving office in January after an election to replace him in November, a lot of attention has been paid to the transgressions of certain candidates eyeing his job. Being mayor of New York City isn’t a job for the weakhearted, as anyone who watched former Mayor Giuliani in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001 can attest. His replacement, Bloomberg, has the utter failure of a relaunch of the 9-1-1 system on his record, and any deaths or injuries that result are the sole responsibility of the man who, despite countless warnings from consultants that he himself hired, insisted on launching a program that the city couldn’t afford and that didn’t fit its needs.

The amount of times that the system has shut down since its launch in May when there were no major events precipitating the failures should strike fear into hearts of New Yorkers who are not unaccustomed to being the site of disasters both natural and man-made in the last decade and a half. With the mayoral election fast approaching, New Yorkers should be holding candidates’ feet to the fire on the condition of the emergency services and their ability to respond to personal emergencies as well as major catastrophes. This is an issue that affects each and every New York City resident, and if Bloomberg’s failure is allowed to stand as it is, he or his replacement will soon have to answer for an incident far more embarrassing and potentially disastrous than an overheated intern passed out in the midday Brooklyn sun. 

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