Levy orders 911 update after storm stymies Suffolk's system

Emergency 911 operator Mindy Zoota, 40, fields calls

Emergency 911 operator Mindy Zoota, 40, fields calls at Yaphank Police Headquarters. (April 8, 2010) (Credit: James Carbone)

More than 2,300 calls to Suffolk's 911 system went unanswered during last month's powerful nor'easter, the worst in a string of severe weather events that has prompted County Executive Steve Levy to order an update of emergency preparedness plans.

Levy, in a written statement issued Thursday - 26 days after the storm - said he was convening an internal panel to "update" the plan. He said that he wants the review completed by the 2010 hurricane season, which starts June 1.

The March 13 storm also overwhelmed the 911 system in Nassau, where officials made the problem public the next day - and pledged $7 million for upgrades.

In Suffolk, 2,387 calls logged during the storm did not get through to a 911 operator - that's 1 out of every 5 calls. In Nassau, 1,548 calls - or 1 in 7 - did not reach an operator.

Some calls to Nassau's 911 system were handled by Suffolk, though officials are not able to tabulate how many.

"This storm produced record rainfall and flooding, and our emergency preparedness systems were certainly put to the test over the last six months during a winter/early spring season that also included a blizzard and a hurricane-like nor'easter," Levy said in the statement.

 

Officials: No danger

Suffolk officials said they were not aware of anyone placed in danger by the inability of 911 operators to answer the missed calls, which are labeled "abandoned" because people can't get through and hang up.

During the storm, Nassau Executive Edward Mangano was at the county's 911 center as overmatched operators tried to keep pace. But in Suffolk, Levy kept in touch by telephone "with Suffolk emergency management and law enforcement personnel," said communications director Dan Aug.

Suffolk police started to notice that some calls were being abandoned around noon on March 13 when 58 missed calls were logged, Aug said. Police said they began calling those numbers back. By 11 p.m., police staffers had dialed back all the abandoned call numbers - though in some cases supervisors reached answering machines or nobody picked up, said Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer.

Over the next two days, reporters asked Aug and emergency management commissioner Joe Williams - the designated spokesmen - how Suffolk's system performed during the emergency. The officials reported no 911 system problems similar to those in Nassau.

It wasn't until three days after the storm that Aug, Williams - and Levy - were aware that some callers to the 911 system had been unable to get through, Aug said. Suffolk officials never alerted the public about the missed calls.

Levy's order last week to update emergency preparedness plans comes after police officials on April 1 said the abandoned calls were "not indicative of a system problem."

Chief Deputy County Executive Ed Dumas said that although Williams and Aug speak for the county during storms, neither works directly with the 911 system, and he would not expect them to know about the abandoned calls.

Said Dumas: "I think we may have gotten some wires crossed."

Jim Callahan, Nassau's emergency management commissioner, said Mangano routinely holds review meetings after severe storms, during which the executive is in touch with 911 operations and monitoring call volumes.

He said the county's quick disclosure of system issues was part of the routine post-storm process: "Part of how you fix problems is to say, 'Hey, you know what, this didn't work too well.' "

While it's not uncommon for big storms to overwhelm 911 call centers, the standard for such systems is whether they answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds during the peak hour of a typical day, said Rick Jones, operations issues director for the National Emergency Number Association, an Arlington, Va., professional group. His association devised that benchmark, which both counties said they strive to meet.

"You can't handle every emergency," Jones said.

 

No standard

There's no standard for an unacceptable number of abandoned calls in a 911 systems during a crisis, Jones said.

Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford), chairman of the legislature's public safety committee, which oversees 911 operations, was critical of how the system performed March 13. "Obviously, we dropped the ball," he said. "We didn't have a system in place to deal with a crisis."

Levy rejected Eddington's critique. "Legislator Eddington's boss, the head of the Suffolk PBA, has instructed him to be critical of all police department functions, operations and responses to all incidents and to repeat the mantra that more officers are needed as a general response to all reporter inquiries," he said.

Officials rarely find out that an abandoned call involved a dire emergency, said Jones. "It only happens when somebody with that condition alerts somebody," he said. "In these cases, it is common across the country that there is not a lot of feedback from the public about what happened."

Even as the review of the emergency preparedness plan gets under way, some Suffolk officials praised the system's performance.

"This was a very unusual event, as everybody knows," Dormer said. "We handled it very well."

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