Post-9/11, NYPD Rethinks Its Dispatch System

By John McCormick Print this article Print

Online exclusive: New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Charles Dowd, the commanding officer of the NYPD's communication division, is very proud of his operation and the more than 1,000 civilian and sworn personnel in his charge. And while th

Sept. 11, 2001, was the moment of truth for Charles Dowd's crew.

That morning, he says, a 911 operator, sitting in a Brooklyn facility just across the river from lower Manhattan, took a call from a woman who was trapped in one of the blazing World Trade Center towers. She asked the operator what she should do.

The operator, Dowd says, calling on his training and experience dealing with fire emergencies, told the woman to make sure the doors were closed and to get as close to the ground as possible. But, as the woman went on to described the horror unfolding before her eyes—a jet-fuel-powered inferno racing through her ravaged office and colleagues on window ledges jumping out or preparing to jump—it hit the operator that the woman wasn't thinking about survival. She wanted to know what she should do—let the flames consume her or jump from one of the tallest buildings in the world?

"How do you answer something like that?" Dowd, the commanding officer of the New York Police Department's communications division, asks.

Dowd says the operator calmly told the woman that only she could make the decisions she was going to be forced to make in the next few minutes. Dowd says it was the only advice the operator could have given.

The Brooklyn facility that Tuesday was being flooded with hundreds of other cries for help that were just as desperate. In the first 12 minutes of the attack, Dowd says, the 911 call center received 3,000 phone calls—many from victims in the towers who were begging for help. The 911 operators needed to move through the calls—to collect vital information such as the victims' whereabouts—and to get to the next caller as quickly as possible. However, many people on the other end of the line did not want to get off the phone. The operators, Dowd says, showed great discretion as to which calls needed extra attention and which could be terminated quickly.

"Even in a police department like ours, where we get 32,000 calls a day, we don't usually deal with life and death on the telephone," he says. "But that day we were getting dozens of those calls."

Dowd says his people didn't falter. Some operators, in tears, needed to walk away from their stations for a few minutes to compose themselves, but all stayed at their posts through their tours dealing with one of the most difficult days in the unit's history.

The department's communications equipment on Sept. 11 was just as solid. There were no disruptions in 911 service or in the department's police radio dispatch system, which was built in 1968. Police headquarters in lower Manhattan did lose phone service when a Verizon telephone station next to the Trade Center was damaged. But that had no effect on the department's ability to take emergency calls and dispatch units.

New York City hired a consultant, McKinsey & Co., to study the operations of the city's police and fire department on Sept. 11. Some of their findings have been published. The report takes the police department to task for a lack of proper planning and training and lapses that day in leadership and coordination. But it said the department's communications system performed well.

But Dowd and others in the department know the system could be—and should be—better.

In a move that has yet to be publicly announced, the department has signed a $34 million contract with Hewlett-Packard to build a new computer-aided dispatch system.

Today, the New York Police department relies on its proprietary 34-year-old Sprint radio dispatch system to communicate with patrol cars. No one, including Dowd, who says he was in grammar school when the system was developed, seems to remember what Sprint stands for, although a best guess says it's an acronym for Special Police Radio Intelligence Network.

This article was originally published on 2002-09-09
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