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New York City Quietly Activates 911 Text-Message System Amid George Floyd Protests

Brooklyn 911 Call Center
The city’s main 911 call center in downtown Brooklyn
Photo: NYPD

New York City’s long-promised interim 911 texting system went live Tuesday morning, THE CITY has learned, though officials aren’t advertising it amid ongoing protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd.

The de Blasio administration initially vowed to have the technology — intended to primarily serve deaf or hard of hearing people, and domestic violence victims who need to surreptitiously seek help — ready by “early 2018.”

City Hall kept the launch of the new system quiet because officials were worried people angry with the NYPD would inundate it with profane photos during a critical period as police respond to a spike in calls, according to a source involved in the process.

The city’s non-emergency hotline, 311, was recently flooded with nude pictures and people giving the city the middle finger, the New York Post reported.

With the new 911 system, Sprint cell phone users can text photos and videos. But other carriers can’t support that functionality.

It is illegal to file a false 911 report. It is unclear, though, whether texting an inappropriate message or photo would technically be a violation that could result in jail time of a year or more.

Delays and Squabbles

The 911 texting project was delayed for more than two years due to technical glitches and fights between the NYPD and the Department of Information and Technology (DoITT). The feud got so heated last year that a police official refused to participate in a new round of testing for the problem plagued system.

The agencies also battled over an even bigger project to upgrade the 911 system known as NextGen911 (NG911), which will take the city’s emergency call system from analog technology to an internet protocol structure able to handle texts, photos and videos, as well as phone calls. That system is expected to debut in 2024.

“Text-to-911 is making emergency services more accessible to vulnerable New Yorkers who aren’t able to call 911 during an emergency,” said Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson.

The interim system “will make our city safer for everyone,” she added.

New Yorkers are urged to still call 911 whenever possible and only use the text option if necessary.

That’s because text requests typically take four to seven minutes to deal with, given typed messages back and forth, according to other jurisdictions’ experience with the technology. That’s far longer than the 30-to-120-second average for 911 phone calls.

More than half of New York state’s 62 counties already have emergency texting. Several major cities across the country also are using the technology.

The city’s tech department tapped the Texas-based firm VESTA Solutions, a division of Motorola, to create the temporary texting upgrade. That contract ballooned from $28.3 million to $41.58 million since 2017, according to city contract records.

City officials say that some of that money has gone toward other projects.

The texting project finally moved forward after Jessica Tisch moved from her post as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of technology to head of DoITT in December.

Earlier this year, the city’s Cyber Command checked the system and raised several concerns about its ability to combat a possible cyber attack, according to multiple sources involved in the process. But DoITT contends that technology does not exist to ensure the system is totally failproof, the sources said.

A Lifeline for Some

Despite the lack of publicity for the new system, at least one domestic violence victim texted for help on Tuesday, according to a city official.

Advocates for the estimated 208,000 deaf and hard of hearing people living in New York City had long urged the government officials to speed up its 911 text system. They contend the technology is a matter of life or death in some cases.

“Every single day that New York City delays implementing this service is another day that New Yorkers’ very lives hang in the balance,” Maureen Belluscio, an attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said during a November City Council hearing.

Four months later, the de Blasio administration enlisted VESTA to spearhead the broader NG911 revamp. The firm, which has helped Houston create a 911 system, will be paid up to $147.5 million, according to a posting in the City Record.

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