City Downplays Problems In Fire Dispatch System

Chief Leader - December 15, 2009

by ARI PAUL

Unions: 'Fix' Won't Work

Bloomberg administration officials Dec. 10 defended the controversial Unified Call-Taker 911 system in the face of mounting criticism from lawmakers and union officials during a City Council hearing on emergency dispatching.

Fire Department unions have blamed the UCT system, which has been in place since May, for too often sending fire units to erroneous locations, which in two cases resulted in civilian fatalities (the FDNY claims that other factors were involved in those deaths, including wrongful partitioning of rooms in a deadly fire in Queens). The system has Police Department 911 Dispatchers taking fire calls, getting the location of the fire and dispatching the units in an effort to get companies out of their firehouses quicker to reduce response times. Under the old system, 911 call-takers switched fire calls over to Fire Alarm Dispatchers.

Says Repetition Wasted Time

In testimony before a joint session of three committees-Fire and Criminal Justice Services, Public Safety, and Technology and Government- FDNY Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano explained that other cities over the last several years have been moving toward unified call taking and that the old system came with too many redundancies.

"This usually meant that a caller would have to provide information to two different call-takers, expending valuable time," he said. "Therefore, the UCT process reduces the time it takes to initiate a response. It is important to note that under UCT, Dispatchers with borough-specific knowledge- the very same Dispatchers who field calls under the previous system- are still going to handle the 911 calls as they always did."

Deputy Mayor for Operations Ed Skyler said that while fire unions have pointed to several instances where units were sent to the wrong locations since May, only 1 percent- or 1,500-of the 150,000 emergency calls that have come through the UCT system have resulted in complaints.

"Ninety-nine percent of them went without a hitch," he said.

Unions have reported that this number is actually as high as 4,000, but Mr. Skyler said that this was "wildly inaccurate," noting that this number included inquiries or questions about the 911 system, not necessarily errors in the UCT process.

One Snafu Involved 3 Deaths

Outrage over the system has intensified in recent weeks. Last month, a father and his two children were killed in a fire caused by burning incense in an apartment on St. Marks Ave. and Rogers Ave. in Brooklyn, after fire companies initially were sent to the wrong address at Prospect Pl. Another individual was severely injured in a separate fire in the borough. Union officials said that the system resulted in units being sent to wrong addresses and cell phone towers- which is 911 protocol when a location can't be ascertained but the source of a cell-phone call to 911 can be tracked-in Brooklyn and the City Island section of The Bronx.

Chief Cassano, however, denied that the UCT was to blame.

"The facts are that in these instances, there were no issues with the UCT system," he said. "A 911 caller providing an incorrect or vague address is not a UCT system problem. A 911 call that is cut off before an address is given is not a UCT system issue."

He continued that "wrong information is provided to 911 every day" and that this "fact of life cannot fairly be attributed to UCT."

The FDNY has also argued over the past month that fire response times have continued to decrease, a claim unions contested.

Union Head: Actually Slows Help

"Response times are not going down, they're increasing dramatically because we have to call the people back, get the right locations, send the fire engines to where they're supposed to be going and [the FDNY does] not take that time into account," said David Rosenzweig, the departing president of the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association." They're way over four minutes, and they're probably way over five minutes."

Patrick J. Bahnken, who as president of District Council 37 Local 2507 represents Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics, said that the UCT did not properly triage medical emergency calls, which in some instances caused advanced life support personnel to go to situations that did not need them, draining resources from patients who did.

"What that means is that the person who is really having a heart attack does not get the Paramedics that they need and they deserve," he said.

Fire unions argued that a Fire Alarm Dispatcher is less likely to send units to wrong addresses because callers with fire emergencies are usually calling during an incident, while callers with police incidents are more often calling after the fact. They also note that Fire Alarm Dispatchers have hundreds of hours of fire training but general Dispatchers only get eight hours in that area.

Question Adjustment's Value

During the hearing, Police Department Deputy Chief Charles Dowd testified that "every month there is new training," in an effort to provide UCT Dispatchers with more fire knowledge. In light of criticism against the system, the FDNY and NYPD Nov. 20 announced that Fire Alarm Dispatchers would temporarily be allowed to conference into fire calls. But fire unions dismissed the idea that this will make up for the disparity.

"This is their specialty," Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy said of Fire Alarm Dispatchers. "They have the ability to extract information from people who are under tremendous stress, who are inside a burning building. 911 operators don't have any of that kind of training. They do all sorts of other things. We're not blaming them. They're not properly trained to do it. You wouldn't send a plumber to do finished carpentry work, right? And I don't think you'd start training a plumber to do finished carpentry work."

Several media reports on delays in the UCT system have been attributed to wrong key-strokes by NYPD Dispatchers, who are members of DC 37 Local 1549.

"All of the shortcomings that have led to this very dangerous situation have to do with changes put into place by City Hall," DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts said in a statement. "All of these changes were done with little or no consultation with our union or the DC 37 members who know and operate the system."

Committee Chair Has Doubts

Several Council Members were skeptical that there was any need to transfer the duties of Fire Alarm Dispatchers to UCT Dispatchers. Public Safety Committee Chair Peter Vallone Jr. told the Bloomberg administration officials, "This is not something where we can work out the kinks as we go, when the kinks are people's lives."

Councilman Vincent Gentile asked Chief Cassano if he was correct in thinking that the UCT system only applied to emergency calls made by phone, so if one pressed the fire button on a street call box, it would go straight to a Fire Alarm Dispatcher, who gathered the relevant information, rather than an NYPD Call-Taker.

After Mr. Cassano confirmed that this was the case, Mr. Gentile shot him a look of shock and punctuated his line of questioning with one word: "Amazing."