Post-9/11, NYPD Rethinks Its Dispatch System

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2002-09-09

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.

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How NY's Dispatch System Works

Calls come into the city's Brooklyn communications center, where 911 operators take the information and feed it into terminals that are hooked up to a mainframe in police headquarters in downtown Manhattan. The mainframe takes the address information, corresponds the address to one of the department's 76 precincts, and then sends the information to the terminal of the precinct's police dispatcher. All the dispatchers are housed in the Brooklyn center, which each dispatcher handling, on average, two precincts. The dispatcher sits in front of a split screen, with one side showing jobs needing to be assigned and the other showing jobs that are being handled and the unit handling each assignment. Calls go out over precinct-specific frequencies.

The radio system, however, is congested. And patrol officers say that on some—albeit rare—occasions, they wait up to five minutes to break in with a request for information, such as a plate check, or to notify a dispatcher that they've finished one job and are ready for another assignment.

"Five minutes doesn't sound like a lot," Dowd says, "but if it's happening with increased frequency, obviously you're not getting as much out of your resources as you could." Cops are delayed in returning to patrols or responding to other calls.

Dowd, however, says that over the past few years, the problem has been alleviated as the department reduced the number of precincts handled by individual dispatchers—some had been responsible for three or even four precincts—and installed, in the 1990s, mobile data terminals (MDT) in some patrol cars that enable officers to query the department's want-and-warrant system and New York's State's motor vehicle database. However, only about half of the departments 4,300 patrol vehicles have MDTs.

The goals of the new computer-aided dispatch system, according to Dowd, are to not only free up the airwaves but to better communicate information with officers on the street.

Future Enhancements

Dowd says the department and HP have just started planning the new dispatch system, so it's too early to say what the capabilities of the new system will be or what features it will offer.

But computer-aided dispatching systems already deployed in many big-city police departments, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, often allow officers to quickly and easily access state and federal vehicle and want-and-warrant databases. And most systems provide officers responding to an address with a list of known hazards and prior incidents.

Not only does this increase officer safety—since they know what they're getting into before they arrive on the scene—but also alerts cops to keep an eye out for things. For example, if the address had previous firearm complaints, the cops could be on the lookout for illegal pistols or rifles, which might get a few more guns off the street.

In a move related to the computer-aided dispatch system, the NYPD is planning to equip cars with Panasonic Toughbook laptops. One thing Dowd would like to see is a feature in the new dispatch system that would allow officers to make reports on in-car computers and, as soon as the reports are complete, to transmit them electronically to precinct commanders and detective bureaus. In the case of a burglary, for instance, cops with laptops could file a report to a detective who could immediately begin an investigation. Burglary reports are now filled out on paper and sometimes not entered into a record system for a day and a half.

Dowd, who was a lieutenant in a detective unit, knows the importance of speed. One of the things a detective squad command learns, he says, "is that accurate information, gotten to you as quickly as possible, in the early stages of an investigation, is always critical. You can't underestimate the value of that."

As time passes, for instance, witnesses don't remember things as clearly, or, worse, can't be located again.

Another advantage: If the officer enters a complaint or incident report there's less of a chance that information will be incorrectly typed in to a system by a data entry staffer working off an officer's typed written reports.

"In the normal course of any business, a certain amount of information is accurate or inaccurate. You just deal with that. Clearly, the quicker you get the information the easier it is to make determinations as to what's accurate or inaccurate. So, it's the speed that is the ultimate goal," he says.

The new system also would help 911 operators do their job better. In computer-aided dispatch systems, emergency call-takers sit at screens that prompt the operator to ask a series of questions as information is input into the system. With a burglary in progress, for instance, Dowd says a system will pop up lists of questions to be asked—such as whether a weapon is involved.

Still, as Sept. 11 proved, no system and no training will prepare 911 operators for every emergency. But Dowd is confident his people are up to any challenge and will rise to any occasion, as they did that Tuesday morning. "They job they did was just incredible," he says. "They handled some tremendously difficult calls."