Two weeks ago today, I called 911. It was an unsettling experience.
Walking by Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan, my wife spotted plumes of smoke rising through the trees. There was a fire in the woods, and it was growing.
My call to 911 started at 3:14 p.m. and lasted 3 minutes, according to my iPhone's log. Astonishingly, the operator spent almost all of that time -- probably 2.5 minutes -- trying to find my location on her computer.
Later, using the same information, I did it in 16 seconds. That's the time it takes to type "maps.google.com" into a browser and then "seaman avenue and 214th street nyc."
911 = 150 seconds.
Google Maps = 16 seconds.
Now, this is not a journalistic exploration of why it took so long for the operator to locate me. It is merely my experience. But it's startling enough that I think it is worth a careful recounting. It seems New York City doesn't release 911 calls as a matter of course, though I hope to get mine for a precise transcript of what happened. But the night of the call, I did my best to write down what happened:
• When the operator first answered, I said there's a fire in the woods "in Inwood Hill Park at Seaman Avenue and 214th Street." The park is big, and the fire was across a baseball field in the woods, but it was visible from I was standing and two entrances are nearby. So where I was standing seemed a good location to report.
• The operator asked me if I meant East 214th Street, and I said no, West 214th Street. (For what it's worth, Seaman Avenue doesn't cross East 214th Street.)
• The operator said she couldn't pull up that intersection, eventually asking me if she had spelled Seaman Avenue correctly: S-e-a-m-a-n. Yes, I said, that's right.
• She said to me again that it "wasn't coming up" but kept trying.
• I suggested another cross street, Isham Street, and she said, "In the Bronx?" No, I said surprised, Manhattan.
• That fixed it ... she was able to find my location.
• She then asked me to hold while she connected me to another operator. After several rings, she verbally conveyed my information to the second operator, mistakenly saying "the Bronx" -- which I corrected as she caught herself, "Manhattan!"
A fire engine arrived a short time later and quickly got the fire under control.
Here are several related searches on Google Maps, all of which return results in less than a second:
"inwood hill park nyc" returns a pin on the west side of the park -- which isn't where the fire was. A fire truck going there would have been misdirected. But it's clearly in Manhattan. And the resulting map would have been a good starting place to work with me to pinpoint my location: "OK, I see Seaman Avenue running along the park ... were exactly from there?"
"214th street and seaman avenue nyc" returns a pin exactly where I was standing. No question about Manhattan or the Bronx.
"seaman avenue and east 214th street nyc" does the same thing, correcting to West 214th Street.
"seaman avenue bronx" returns a pin at 207th Street and Seaman Avenue, correctly in Manhattan, near the entrance to the park -- and, in this case, in sight of the smoke.
WNYC has done some good reporting on 911, but we never had such a concrete example of address confusion. I wonder if other people are having the same problem.