- Some of the city’s most vulnerable residents were unable to get through to overwhelmed 911 operators, while others were referred to non-emergency numbers, the NY Post reported
- Disabled David Gotthelf, 72, drowned in his Rockaways home after emergency services failed to reach him despite a friend calling for hours and hours
PUBLISHED: 04:11 EST, 19 November 2012 | UPDATED: 08:05 EST, 19 November 2012
New York’s emergency services have been heavily criticised for their lack of preparation during Superstorm Sandy as it emerged some of the city’s most vulnerable residents could not get through to 911 operators.
Emergency lines rang and rang without an answer and those lucky enough to get through were greeted by woefully unprepared operators, the New York Post said today.
Others needing urgent help during and after the devastating storm were passed on to the city’s 311 non-emergency line, while dispatchers from the police, fire and ambulance services squabbled over which calls were more urgent.
Diane Hudson, 45, said an elderly neighbour with cerebral palsy drowned when his Rockaway Park home filled up with flood water because it took hours to get through to emergency services.
She said 72-year-old David Gotthelf, who was a wheelchair user, had called Hudson for help when he couldn’t get through to 911 himself.
‘The first hour or so, I got a busy signal. When [I was] finally able to get through to 911, it would ring for three or four minutes,’ Hudson told the paper.
‘One time, they sent [me] to a dispatcher who called me back and ended up being in the Bronx [at least a 40 minute drive away].’
On another occasion, she was transferred to Emergency Medical Services, which coordinates ambulances, only to be told they don’t do rescues.
‘I told them my friend who’s disabled was stuck in his apartment, and I hadn’t spoken to him in hours. They said, ‘We can’t really help you because it’s not a medical emergency.’
‘They obviously weren’t trained for this kind of situation. They’re kind of reading from a script.’
Gotthelf had been logged in their system but his best hope of rescue was by calling 311.
Despite Hudson trying both emergency lines until her phone battery died, responders were never dispatched and she found her friend dead the following morning.
Other people spoke of being criticised by overwhelmed emergency operators for not evacuating.
New York’s 911 system typically handles 30,000 calls a day but during the storm on October 29 it received 20,000 calls an hour.
The city’s 1,400 dispatchers were overwhelmed despite claims the 911 system could handle 50,000 calls an hour.
In 2009, the city spent $2bn on upgrading the system, including a $680m call centre.
Earlier this year, a consultant found the city’s fire and police department’s reliance on having their own dispatchers created a situation where operators often ‘wasted time asking duplicative questions and taking identical actions for the same 911 caller’
However, New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne defended the set=up.
‘Instead of holding on as instructed by a recording during these peaks, callers hung up and redialled even though the recording cautioned against doing so because it put repeat callers back at the bottom of the queue and furthered overall delays,’ he said.
‘Despite repeated requests to the public to use 311 for non-emergencies, many still used 911 for non-life-threatening situations.’
Superstorm Sandy made landfall on America’s east coast at around 6.30pm on October 29, causing 131 fatalities and an estimated $50bn of damage.