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NYC Unifies, Fortifies 911 System

Upgraded system supports 50,000 calls per hour, a volume that's nine times higher than was logged during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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New York City has for the first time unified its 911 system on common infrastructure and added enhancements for quicker response as part of an ongoing program to streamline how the city answers emergency calls and dispatches services.

All of the city's more than 1,500 emergency call takers are now using the same technology--an upgraded system that leverages two new, fully dedicated and networked telephony digital switches and can handle 50,000 calls per hour, according to mayor Michael Bloomberg's office.

As a point of comparison, the new calls-per-hour rate is more than 40 times the average daily volume and nine times more than the peak hourly call volume during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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New high-tech features give call takers a better view of where callers are located through onscreen maps, allowing them to more quickly and accurately dispatch help, according to Bloomberg, who introduced improvements to the system at an event in Brooklyn Thursday.

These and other improvements are part of a long process to fix an overstressed, siloed system that fundamentally was not designed to efficiently handle the call volume of such a large metropolitan area, he said.

"Since the system was created in the 1960s, callers to 911 had to, in effect, ask for help three different times at three different call centers that had no automated way to share data and work together," Bloomberg said. "We now have all of the city's emergency response agencies in one place and on the same system, with state-of-the-art technology that can handle the large number of calls we see during big emergencies."

New York has been working to upgrade its 911 system since 2004 through its Emergency Communications Transformation program. An August 2003 blackout in the northeast showed it had serious "operational and technical vulnerabilities," according to Bloomberg, who convened a task force at the time to identify deficiencies and come up with a solution. The modernization program is the result of that effort.

Creating a unified system out of the various silos that were making it difficult to coordinate response efforts was one of the chief goals of the program that has been achieved.

Other upgrades bolster data sharing and resource coordination among various city emergency and law-enforcement agencies--including the New York Police Department (NYPD), the Fire Department New York (FDNY), and the city's Emergency Management Services (EMS), and add Automated Vehicle Locator technology in emergency response vehicles so dispatchers can track them.

New York has been one of the U.S. cities at the forefront of making better use of technology to improve its engagement with its citizens and the quality of service it delivers both internally and externally.

In addition to its own efforts to modernize emergency-response efforts, New York also has been at the center of a national move to improve how the appropriate agencies respond in emergencies and disasters.

Along with Washington, New York is the first U.S. city to participate in a new mobile alert system called the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), a free, geographically specific service that sends emergency alerts to people's mobile devices.

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