The cost of failure is high for D.C. police Inspector Ira Grossman. Success means disaster averted.
Grossman manages emergency 911 calls made in Washington. He oversees the network that delivers calls to an operator, increases staff to handle surges in calls, dispatches fire and rescue workers when required, and tries to ensure that everything happens swiftly.
"No more excuses; the pressure's on," said Grossman, who has served 15 years on the D.C. police force and said he deals with chaos by embracing a strict sense of order.
His job became especially difficult in the past year. More than 1.95 million calls came into the D.C. emergency call center, an 8.3 percent increase from the previous year. The 160-person dispatch staff has been under pressure to respond to emergencies faster, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism and the anthrax attacks, and this year's sniper shootings.
To reduce response time and keep his staff focused, Grossman has tried to boost morale by sprucing up the emergency call center with new floor tile and pictures on the walls. He encourages operators to take yoga classes.
But these measures go only so far. Technology is another of Grossman's tools, and he's coordinating with the District to build one of the most advanced emergency-response systems in the country.
The network infrastructure that the center leases from Verizon Communications Inc. is expensive and out of date, D.C. officials say. In addition, Washington has only one emergency call center covering the entire District; most cities this size have two. On top of that, the call center's systems are not configured to trace the location of wireless 911 calls, making it harder to dispatch help.
With half the American population carrying cell phones, the number of wireless 911 calls increases every year. But call centers in the District, as in most of the country, can't locate where those calls are coming from -- a technical limitation that leaves callers vulnerable, especially when those in distress can't describe their location. "It's frustrating," Grossman said.
The District is trying to work on a comprehensive fix for most of Grossman's technology headaches. The project will revamp the entire emergency response system, starting with a $93 million fiber-optic network that will eventually connect 380 D.C. government operations, as well as police houses, libraries and schools. Construction on that network began in January and so far has connected nine of 10 key downtown government buildings. Separately, the District plans to build a $100 million central command center in Southeast that will eventually house an updated call center.
The real advantage of the new network to Grossman's operation is that it will update the route of a normal emergency call.
Currently, a 911 call made in Washington travels through Verizon's network like a passenger holding a first-class airline ticket. The call travels from a home or building to the local phone company's central office, where it gets tagged as high priority and butts in front of a line of normal phone calls. From that point, the call rides on the equivalent of a chartered flight, getting handed off from a router to a dedicated line that connects to the nearest emergency call center. There, a database tags all calls made from a land line -- roughly 70 percent of 911 calls -- to identify the caller's address and phone number. On average, the whole process takes 8 seconds.
The center can't collect statistics on blocked calls or call failures because Verizon doesn't keep logs of the calls. Verizon officials say the company's systems are properly maintained; records of glitches are mostly anecdotal.
"Sometimes people call and say they tried 16 times and couldn't get through," said Peter R. Roy, deputy chief technology officer for the D.C. government's technology office. It makes sense for the District to build its own network so as not to depend on a third party to fix broken systems, he said.
The District's planned fiber-optic network will circumvent Verizon's copper network altogether, which in some places is four decades old, Roy said. The District also plans to replace databases that identify callers. Today, 911 calls made from cell phones show up as a blank screen on a call-taker's monitor, but the new databases -- which may cost the District more than $500,000 a year -- will be able to identify the physical location and numbers of both wire-line and wireless calls, he said.
The District's network project should save money in the long run, Roy said. During its 20-month contract from October 2000 through May of this year, the District paid Verizon $788,011, or about $39,400 a month, for network and database services -- a rate Roy said he talked down from the more than $2 million the local phone giant initially charged.
"All of that just proved we need to do it ourselves," he said.
By Nov. 1 next year, the District should be carrying all of its own 911 calls. Grossman believes the changes will bring his operation closer to reaching his ideal response time.
"We're gonna get better and better," said Grossman, whose voice swells with pride as he talks about progress. His praise of employees is effusive and glowing, but he also holds them to a high standard. "There's always room for improvement. Our job -- my job -- is customer service," he said.
For Grossman, responding to and trying to prevent crimes and disasters can be consuming; he said he even spends his off-duty hours imagining nightmare scenarios.
"What do I do if I see two armed men coming out of there with red bags full of money?" Grossman asks himself when idling at a stoplight near a bank. Or a crop duster flying over Georgetown? Or a suspicious van parked on Constitution Avenue?
He said he sees technology as a way to keep improving. "This is serious stuff. Everything could change in a moment here," and in that moment, he said, it's his center's phones that will start ringing off the hook. "You plan for the worst and hope for the best."