DC37 (21852)

The leader of the biggest public sector union in New York City wants the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to investigate the city’s new 911 emergency response system.

Last week, Executive Director of District Council 37, AFSCME, Lillian Roberts called on the DHS to investigate the city’s emergency response system, pointing to the recent failures and the fact that $2 billion system was funded partly by federal dollars. DC 37 represents 121,000 workers, including 1,000 emergency operators and dispatchers. Roberts expressed her concerns in a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

“The present status of the 911 system upgrade—massive cost overruns, waste and allegations of fraud, serious operational issues and significant understaffing—poses a serious threat to public safety and is a significant drain on much-needed public resources,” Roberts wrote. “The 911 operators were forced to record emergency information by hand on slips of paper in order for runners to race through the emergency call center’s vast Brooklyn headquarters to deliver them to dispatchers charged with alerting the appropriate response team.”

Roberts noted that not long after the new system went online, following a recent $88 million upgrade, it experienced operational failures and glitches.

To date, there have been three City Council hearings on the 911 system breakdowns but, as Roberts noted, the city has not taken steps to correct the system’s failures.

On Monday, the City Council held a meeting on the glitches in the new 911 system after the controversy surrounding the death of 4-year-old Ariel Russo, who was struck by an SUV on the Upper West Side earlier this month. Russo’s family believes her death could have been prevented if 911 hadn’t delayed the ambulance’s response time.

In a recent audit, New York City Comptroller John Liu found that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s project to upgrade the system was seven years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget. The audit also revealed that the emergency 911 program was impacted significantly by delays from contractors who couldn’t meet their obligations. According to Liu, it cost the city an additional $362 million.

The audit also revealed that only one component of the system upgrade was presently up and running.

In her letter, Roberts tells Napolitano that she believes that Bloomberg has “created a serious threat to public safety and wasted millions of dollars by contracting out the project to firms with questionable performance records, such as Intergraph Corp., which has been implicated in breakdowns of similar systems in San Jose, Calif., and Nassau County.

“The overall cost of the glitch-ridden system has soared from $1.4 billion to more than $2 billion, and chronic understaffing under the Bloomberg administration nearly doubled annual overtime expenses since 2008 to $4 million, with this year’s tab expected to hit $4.5 million,” added Roberts.