The city's 911 operators are now able to give callers details about emergency events, reversing what the Sept. 11 Commission determined were flaws in a system that a decade ago denied people inside the burning World Trade Center potentially lifesaving information, officials said Thursday.
"Call takers now are given specific information dealing with a particular emergency so that they can transfer that information to callers much more quickly," police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at the formal launch of a new $680 million 911 call center.
The new technology at the Brooklyn center will put more information into the hands of the 911 call takers, allowing officials to feed them information about an emergency and automatically showing them a map of the location of each caller. It also will prevent the system from getting overloaded in the event of a catastrophe, city officials said.
In 2004, the federal commission, which was created to study the terror attacks and make recommendations designed to prevent future attacks, concluded that on Sept. 11, 2001, the phone system's operators and dispatchers were unaware that fire chiefs were evacuating the doomed twin towers because the city had no way of relaying that information.
As panicked people called 911 seeking guidance on how to escape the burning 110-story buildings, the operators answering the phones were able to offer little help, and some told workers not to evacuate. More than 2,750 people were killed in the attack on the twin towers.
The commission concluded that an unknown number of victims might have had a chance of survival if 911 operators had told them not to flee upward, where some found locked roof doors and no hope of escape.
On Thursday, emergency officials said that the new call center is able to support a queue of 1,900 emergency calls — up from 500 in 2001. New switches mean the center can now receive up to 50,000 calls in an hour — an unheard-of number for a system that sees an average of 30,000 calls per day.
Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway said that since beginning full operations with New York Police Department staffers last month, there already have been improvements.
"It is performing exceptionally, and in fact the number of calls answered in under 10 seconds has gone up by 6 or 7 percent," he said. "The number of overall calls answered in 30 seconds or less is now at 99.9 percent."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that, under the new system, precious seconds will be saved by requiring most callers to speak to only one operator, instead of repeating information to several. That operator will insert information into the computer system and loop in additional people if necessary, rather than transferring callers to different agencies as was previously done.
The opening of the center was delayed by a few years due to what Holloway said had been problems with the new technology, which had frozen and shut down when handling a large number of calls. When tested with a high volume of calls, the software would freeze and logout users, but the problems were fixed by the contractor.
A second phase of the project, now expected to reach completion in 2015 and cost $2.1 billion, up from the $1.4 billion initially projected in 2004, will involve building another call center in the Bronx, to be used as a backup in the case of a catastrophe.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.