A new study documents that response times for 911 calls are slower in the First Precinct, which covers Lower Manhattan, than in any other district south of Midtown (an area that comprises seven NYPD commands) and the third-slowest overall in Manhattan.
This comes in the wake of two local automotive collisions with pedestrians: one in April that claimed the life of an elderly resident, and another on Friday that left a woman with an amputated leg.
The study, from the City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), a publicly funded agency that provides nonpartisan information on critical issues confronting the City, documents that it takes an average of four minutes from the moment when 911 dispatchers first receive a call for help until the time they assign responders. The report also observes that actual response times are longer, because this study gauges only the interval between a call coming in and a radio dispatch going out. The IBO similarly notes that the City has been required by law since 1991 to publish data about how long it takes help to arrive on scene from such calls, but has ignored this law every year since it was enacted.
In Manhattan, only the NYPD’s massive Midtown North and Midtown South precincts logged slower response times than Lower Manhattan, respectively clocking in at six minutes and 59 seconds, and five minutes and three seconds.
One reason for such lengthy intervals in the face of an emergency may be confusion on the part of 911 operators about the location of streets and addresses within Lower Manhattan.
This problem was underscored on the evening of April 4, when a Battery Park City resident named Blake (she asked that her last name be withheld) was walking along South End Avenue, when, “I heard a weird boom and a scream from a woman standing in front of me. At first, I thought something had happened to her, but then I realized she was pointing toward the middle of the street.”
When Blake looked toward where the woman was pointing, “I saw somebody lying on the pavement. As I approached, I thought it might be one of the neighborhood children, but it turned out to be an elderly lady, who was very small.” This was Arlene Kalfus, who had been struck by a Downtown Connection shuttle bus.
“Her chest was moving up and down, so she was breathing, in a labored way. But she was definitely not conscious,” Blake recalls, noting that, “I was calling 911 as I walked toward her.”
“When I got the 911 operator on the phone, she transferred me to another operator, who asked for the location of the accident. I explained that we were in front of 325 South End Avenue, in Manhattan. But this operator kept repeating that help was on the way to 32 South Street in Brooklyn. I kept telling her this was incorrect, but she kept repeating ‘South Street in Brooklyn.’ Then she said they would call me back.”
“A few minutes later,” Blake recalls, “my phone rang, and the operator said an ambulance was being dispatched to South Street in Manhattan. So I corrected them again, and kept explaining that we were on South End Avenue, between Liberty and Albany Streets, in Manhattan. Then they seemed to think we were on North End Avenue.”
During this time, Blake and several other bystanders stood in the middle of South End Avenue, waving away other traffic, so that Ms. Kalfus would not be run over again. After several minutes, a police van approached the scene, “but didn’t have lights or sirens on, so I assumed they were there by coincidence,” Blake recalls. “They asked what was going on, and I explained that this woman had been run over. So they blocked traffic and began cordoning off the area, stopping cars and keeping pedestrians back. At that point, 911 called me back again, and I explained that police were on the scene. I think the officers called an ambulance with the correct location, using their radios, because the paramedics arrived a few minutes after that.”
Asked to estimate how much time elapsed between her first call to 911, and the arrival of the first ambulance, Blake answers, “between six and nine minutes. It felt like forever. When they finally got there, the paramedics just put a sheet over the lady. They didn’t check to see if she was still alive or try to revive her. When a bunch of us standing near by shouted that they should try to help her, the ambulance crew just said, ‘she’s gone.’ Then they began shouting and cursing at us to get back.”
“That woman was still breathing when I first called 911,” Blake insists. “So there is no way of knowing whether they could have saved her if they had got there sooner.”
A similar scene, albeit with a slightly less tragic conclusion, played out on Friday evening, around 10:00 pm, when an alleged drunk driver turned from Murray Street on West Street, and struck two pedestrians. One was Travis Frank-Martain, a safety agent, employed by Goldman Sachs, to escort people through the congested intersection. The car hit him with enough force to throw him into the air, but he escaped with minor injuries.
Less fortunate was Sarah Chan, whom Mr. Frank-Martain had helped through the intersection seconds earlier. She was struck with sufficient force to sever her left foot. Both Mr. Frank-Martain and Ms. Chan were taken by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital, where doctors had to amputate her leg, below the knee. The driver of the car, Travis Funes, was arrested at the scene and charged with drunk driving and vehicular assault.
Confusion about response times when dispatching emergency personnel to Lower Manhattan has been a recurring concern among community leaders for several years. As long ago as 2014, residents raised alarm about a pair of incidents in which injured persons on the Esplanade had to wait as long as 20 minutes before ambulances were able to find their way to locations where help was needed. In one of these, a jogger suffering from a heart attack died while waiting for help.