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Long-Promised Power to Text 911 Still Hasn’t Arrived on the Scene

The city's main 911 call center in downtown Brooklyn.
The city’s main 911 call center in downtown Brooklyn. Photo: NYPD

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A de Blasio administration promise that New Yorkers will be able to summon emergency responders via 911 text message remains unfulfilled by the city’s technology agency, 1½ years after its advertised launch date.

Announcing a larger, longer-term upgrade of the city’s 911 calling system in June 2017, the Department of Technology and Telecommunications said it would start by delivering text-to-911 service by “early 2018” — a first step toward “a fully digital, state-of-the-art system” that also would allow for sharing of photos, videos and social media.

Today, the 911 system can still only take phone calls — and the earliest emergency texting may be available, say city officials, is the middle of 2020.

Meanwhile, the city trails much of the state on 911 texting systems, which public safety advocates say provide a crucial lifeline for people with hearing and speech challenges — and give the public a safer, surreptitious way to seek help when calling would only increase danger.

The delay apparently isn’t related to money, thanks to surcharges anyone with any kind of phone pays the city and state.

Asked why the city is lagging on the emergency texting system, Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, declined to provide specifics, but promised a “progress report will be out at the end of this year.”

“Text-to-911 is a complex technological project that must work perfectly before launch, and we are working with our partners to ensure readiness before deployment,” she added.

A bystander documents the scene of a pedestrian struck by a bus driver in Midtown. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Over a $1 Billion in Surcharges

A former city official familiar with the 911 upgrade project, started under now-former First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, said it has been plagued by technological and bureaucratic issues.

DoITT is using VESTA Solutions, part of Motorola, to create the system, according to Feyer.

Spending on DoITT’s five-year contract with VESTA, signed in July 2017 for $28.3 million, has so far reached $35 million, according to city contract records. City officials say some of that money has gone toward other projects.

The de Blasio administration has collected $296.7 million from a E-911 surcharge on all phones since fiscal year 2015, according to the city’s Department of Finance, charging $1 per line or device per month. That includes $64.9 million in fiscal year 2019.

The 911 surcharge revenue is put into the city’s general coffers and distributed to various departments, including the NYPD, which uses the money to pay the salaries of its 911 operators, who fielded nearly nine million calls last year.

The state has collected nearly $1 billion from a similar surcharge over the past five years, according to budget records, helping finance 911 text capabilities for 34 out of 62 counties.

Some  41.7% of the money, according to a Federal Communications Commission report to Congress, was shoveled into the state’s general fund in 2017 and used for law enforcement upgrades and other matters, as per state law.

That setup was lampooned by comedian John Oliver on his HBO show. New York is one of only three states that siphons the tax money, according to the Federal Communication Commission.

But New York is not alone in struggling to update its 911 system, FCC records indicate. Less than a quarter of the nation’s emergency call centers, known as Public Safety Answering Points, have 911 text capabilities, FCC data show.

Seeking a Silent Alert

Some New Yorkers say the 911 texting system can’t arrive soon enough. They point out that people facing certain emergency situations — including domestic violence — would have a much safer experience silently texting instead of making a voice call.

Orly Seidman, a Washington Heights resident, said she has twice wished she could text authorities in recent years.

In one instance, she encountered an apparently mentally ill man in Union Square threatening to beat up people. Seidman was forced to move far enough away from the man to avoid tipping him off.

“But the dispatcher just couldn’t understand where he was,” she recalled of the Nov. 9, 2016, incident.

Seidman said she had a similar run in with an agitated man on the Q train who was harassing several teenagers. She was forced to wait to call 911 until the train stopped at the Church Ave. station.

By that time, the man had left the train.

“Had I been able to text,” she said, “I would have been able to ask for intervention earlier.”

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