Nassau executive Edward Mangano pledged Monday to spend roughly $7 million to upgrade a county 911 system that was unable to handle the call volume generated by last weekend's powerful nor'easter.
The problem in Nassau wasn't too few call takers - the county has 200 trained, Mangano said - but too few work stations where they could answer phones. Nassau has just 19 stations, less than half the number of Suffolk County.
His plan calls for increasing the number of stations, known as consoles, at a new public safety complex being built in New Cassel from 24 to about 40, the same number as Suffolk, according to officials there, who reported no problems with their system.
Mangano said some Nassau 911 callers experienced unacceptable delays - officials could not say how long - and he's directed public safety officials to investigate whether all were eventually able to get a human voice on the line.
"We need to look at this system from top to bottom," Mangano said, "and ensure that Nassau's residents are safe."
Both New York City and Suffolk County reported getting more 911 calls in response to the storm than to the 9/11 attack, according to public safety officials. Though comparison figures were not available, Mangano suspects the same was true in Nassau.
Mangano said he believes increased use of cell phones played a role.
In New York City, the 911 emergency phone system took in its second-highest ever number of calls - 65,000 in one 24-hour stretch. The record is 96,000, on the first day of a blackout in 2003.
Mangano's push follows a deluge of 10,000 calls Saturday about downed trees, downed wires, wind damage and other storm impacts that swamped a system that averages 2,200 calls daily.
And it comes at a time of great fiscal stress, when $7 million is a sizable sum for Nassau. Still, Mangano appears to have support for the spending, which he may introduce to the county legislature this week.
"They would be supportive of any effort to increase 911 capabilities and facilities," said Ed Ward, spokesman for the legislature's GOP majority.
Callers not able to get through Saturday were routed to Suffolk, where officials said they absorbed the spillover, took caller reports and relayed them to Nassau dispatchers.
But it was tough going.
Suffolk handled 11,371 calls, more than double the typical 3,965 for a weekend day, very likely the heaviest volume ever, said Dan Aug, spokesman for County Executive Steve Levy.
The volume led to response time delays, even with extra staff called in to work at the county's 40 consoles.
At the Fire Rescue Emergency Services call center in Yaphank, the average time for an operator to route a 911 call doubled from 7 seconds to 15, Aug said.
"It was certainly a test of our staff and our patrol," Aug said. "I think they passed quite well."
Not sure of wait times
Nassau officials are trying to determine how long callers had to wait until someone answered the phone, though news reports indicate that in July of 2008 both Nassau and Suffolk fell within the national standard of 90 percent of calls answered within 10 seconds.
James Carver, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, said Mangano's plan to increase the 911 system's capacity will improve public safety at times of heavy call volume.
As Mangano pursues his plan to increase the number of consoles in Nassau, he also is working on immediately changing 911 protocols. Downed tree calls, for example, would be swiftly routed to the department of public works.
Emergency calls in both counties
The number of calls Nassau and Suffolk took during storm.
911 call-taking consoles
Average number of 911 calls handed daily
911 calls received Saturday
Average response time for 911 calls
Nassau: 10 seconds.
Suffolk FRES call center: 7 seconds.
Suffolk PD call center: 10 seconds.
Response time to 911 calls Saturday
Nassau: not yet determined.
Suffolk FRES call center: 15 seconds.
Suffolk PD call center: not yet determined.
Sources: Nassau County and Suffolk County