This week, the U.S. National Emergency Number Association (NENA) holds its annual conference to discuss 911 policy, technology, operations, and related education issues. I would guess that high on the list of informal conversations among conference attendees will be the increasing controversy engulfing New York City’s new 911 dispatch system, as well as the problems that several other cities and towns recently have reported with their own emergency management systems.
Heated Arguments Over Whether New York City 911 System Contributed to Young Girl’s Death
It is a situation reminiscent of the disastrous London Ambulance Service dispatch system meltdown in 1992 that was blamed for contributing to the deaths of up to 20 or more persons waiting for ambulances that arrived horribly late.
About two weeks ago, four-year-old Ariel Russo was walking to school with her grandmother in New York City’s Upper West Side when they were struck by a car driven by an unlicensed 17-year-old trying to elude the police. According to the New York Daily News, it took “an unusually long 4 minutes and 18 seconds from the time of the first request for an ambulance from police at the scene to a 911 operator, until the time an ambulance was finally dispatched. Once FDNY and EMS dispatchers received and acknowledged the transmission, it took 3 minutes and 52 seconds to dispatch an ambulance and for it to arrive at the scene.”
Ms. Russo was said to still be alive after the crash, but in cardiac arrest; she died on the way to the hospital. It is unclear whether the time delay made a difference in whether she would have survived or not. The grandmother survived, but suffered a broken back and leg.
The FDNY admitted that it shouldn’t have taken four minutes to dispatch an ambulance, but it placed the blame squarely on “human error,” claiming that, “An EMS dispatcher apparently got up from his desk at some point for several minutes and missed the transmission for an ambulance that had been sent by the NYPD operator on a relay. We’ve interviewed the dispatcher and he’s admitted he missed it.”
However, that explanation was immediately challenged on a couple of counts. For one, it was a female dispatcher who supposedly took the call. We say supposedly because the dispatcher, a 23-year veteran, claimed that the call never crossed her screen before she got up to take her scheduled break and was replaced by another dispatcher. In addition, the call was supposed to be displayed not only that dispatcher’s display, but all of the other 39 dispatchers’ screens as well as on a “giant, wall-mounted screen,” the Daily Newsreported in a follow-on story. Why didn't any of the other dispatchers say they saw the call, the Daily News asked.
The FDNY acknowledged that the information was, again supposedly, universally displayed, but insisted that the call was the responsibility of the veteran dispatcher alone. However, New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano did not rule out that other dispatchers might be disciplined for missing the call as well.
The dispatcher’s union, which is backing the accused dispatcher, claimed that the new 911 dispatch system has had numerous problems, including not displaying incoming 911 calls for over two hours after they have been received in some cases. It provided documentation allegedly showing several incidents of this to the Daily News.
In the wake of the charges and counter-charges, the New York City Council will be holding a hearing today into the new 911 dispatch system to determine what really happened, whether the systems is suffering from normal computer “bugs” as Mayor Michael Bloomberg insists, or whether there are more serious problems with the system. New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, who is running for mayor, announced that he will be conducting an audit of the system as well. Additionally, Ariel Russo’s family is planning to sue the city and driver for $40 million, which no doubt will delve deeply into the dispatch system’s reliability, unless the claim is settled out of court.
And if that is not enough, the Boston’s Firefighter’s Union is sending a team to New York City to find out for itself what is happening, the Boston Heraldreports. It turns out that Boston is scheduled to have the same dispatch system, built by Intergraph, installed there this autumn.
But New York City isn’t the only one reporting 911 dispatch-related issues. A few weeks ago, news reports stated that the new US $2 million Grand Rapids, Mich., police 911 dispatch system that was installed last December was having significant problems. Among them were: sending the emergency responder farthest from an emergency or crime scene instead of the one closest to the incident; and indicating that emergency services had been sent when they had yet to be dispatched. A police department spokesperson has dismissed the issues, while police and EMS rank and file apparently insist that the system problems they are experiencing are not being fully addressed.
Then there is Casper, Wyo., which has been plagued with 911 dispatch problems that have required 93 repairs between 2010 and 2012. The Star-Tribunereported last week that the chronic malfunction kept two dispatch systems inoperable for three months. The Casper police department says the 1960s-vintage system is in terrible shape and needs an immediate upgrade.
Greenfield, Wisc., police and fire departments are also hoping for a new 911 system as well. According to a story posted at the Greenfield Patch, an unknown number of 911 calls have been lost since the beginning of the year. The current 911 system was installed in 2003 and was intended to last 15 to 20 years. But the company that built the system was sold shortly after it was installed, and the company's current owner says it will stop supporting the system in 2014.
As I said, there should be a lot to talk about at this week’s NENA conference.
German Bank Supervisor Gets Job Back After Employee’s “Sleep Error”
In a bit of lighter news, BBC News reported last week that a German labor court ruled that a bank supervisor was unfairly fired for missing a financial transaction error caused by a clerk working for her.
Apparently, the clerk was in the midst of transferring 64.2 euros (US $87.72) in April of last year when he dozed off with his finger on the “2” key, and transferred 222 222 222.22 euros (US $ 296 711 111.11) instead. Another bank employee discovered the error and corrected it before it caused any trouble.
The bank fired the supervisor for not checking the transaction before approving it, and accused her of “not even verifying the clerk's work,” the BBC reported.
However, the court apparently believed the supervisor when she said that on the day of the error she had checked “812 documents for mistakes, with most taking just over a second of scrutiny.” The court said that the supervisor hadn’t acted with malicious intent, and should have only been reprimanded with a warning. It ordered the bank to reinstate the supervisor.
There was no word on what happened to the tired clerk.
Chrysler Recalling Even More Vehicles for Software Fixes
It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for Chrysler Group LLC. Two weeks ago, the company announced that it was recalling 409 000 of its Jeep Compass and Patriot vehicles “to fix a software glitch that could stop airbags and seatbelts from working in a crash,” Auto Week reported.
Then a story last week in the Detroit News reported that Chrysler is also going to recall 37 000 Ram trucks “to upgrade software to fix the tail-lamp warning light.” Apparently, when a tail-light goes out, the instrument panel warning light does not come on. The recall affects the 2013 Ram series 1500, 2500 and 3500 pickups.
In addition, the Detroit News says, Chrysler announced last week that it's going to recall 14 800 Dodge Dart cars “to recalibrate powertrain software to address stalling complaints.” The recall affects 2013 models equipped with the 1.4-liter engine.
Well, Chrysler isn’t alone in having to fix software-related issues. A Wall Street Journal story today reported that Ford is planning to put radio tuning and volume knobs back into its vehicles because of continuing problems with its MyFord Touch system. You may recall, last year Consumer Reports placed Ford near the bottom of its 2012 vehicle reliability rating in large part because of MyFord Touch issues.
Ford is hoping that going retro will help overcome the on-going frustration many customers have with the system that a major 2012 software upgrade hasn’t seemed to reduce.
Also of interest …
Photo: Jarrod Erbe/iStockphoto
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.