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Answers Sought in NYC 911 Failures

May 10, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ New York City’s 911 emergency response system has failed three times this year, including once in January, when a man requiring medical aid died of a heart attack.

The breakdowns have left city officials and Bell Atlantic, which maintains the network, pointing fingers and fumbling for answers. No one can say precisely what’s gone wrong or guarantee the $200 million system won’t fail again.

While the January failure was blamed on a power outage _ and the failure of a backup system _ the two most recent instances, on April 28 and May 4, remain unexplained despite extensive tests of the system.

``We want to get to the cause of this, to find out, `What is it?‴ said Bell Atlantic spokesman John Bonomo. ``We want to make sure the system is fail-safe.″

On a busy day, police operating 911 in New York City receive some 30,000 calls, dozens of which are life-and-death situations.

During the January service disruption, 41-year-old John Audy of Vermont, who was in Queens to celebrate his girlfriend’s 40th birthday, suffered a heart attack.

His girlfriend dialed 911 three times but got busy signals. Finally, she ran barefoot in 23-degree weather to a police station nearby. Audy died by the time help arrived.

In the two recent cases, some callers to 911 encountered up to 30 seconds of silence before being connected to an operator. It is unclear how many hung up without waiting.

After the most recent shutdown, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city’s police commissioner said the phone company had taken the blame. But Bell Atlantic denied having told police the breakdowns were its fault.

The police department, which collects a small monthly surcharge on phone lines, has received $117 million since 1991 for a new back-up 911 facility and to pay for technological upgrades but has failed to find an adequate site in the city of 7.4 million people.

The department did not respond to calls for comment.

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