City Island Debacle Proves That 'U-Can't-Tell' Fire Call System Needs Rescue

NY Daily News - October 06, 2009

by Michael Daly

Firefighters who thought they were being dispatched to a fire in City Island Monday were sent a mile in the wrong direction - to the cell phone transmitter that relayed the initial call for help.

Meantime, the fire grew at least sixfold in volume. Ten of the firefighters who finally arrived suffered minor injuries. Only their skill kept it from being much worse.

Firefighters blame the screw-up on the city's new UCT emergency dispatch system, which is supposed to save time and money by having 911 operators deploy fire companies directly. They previously transferred fire calls to an FDNY dispatcher.

Officially, UCT stands for Unified Call Taker, but firefighters say it should be U-Can't-Tell because they are so often sent out with incomplete and even outright wrong information. They say U-Can't-Tell routinely sends them to who-knows-what without critical information a fire dispatcher would get from a caller.

Fire officials defend the five-month-old system as saving valuable seconds by removing one "layer of communication." They say the initial caller on the City Island fire used a cell phone and was disconnected before the operator could get an address.

The operator then traced the call to the nearest transmitter, and dispatched Engine 70 and Ladder 53 in the opposite direction from the fire.

The "ticket" that dispatched the firefighters a half mile to 20 Pilot St. gave no indication they were being sent to anything but the scene of the fire.

It turns out there is no 20 Pilot St. The cell transmitter is actually at 30 Pilot St.

Also, the 28-year-old woman who made the initial call from the second floor of the burning building at 415 City Island Ave. insists the she gave the address before she was disconnected.

"That's the first thing I said," Stacy Librandi told me yesterday afternoon.

Librandi added that she called back immediately and repeated the address.

"I had given the address pretty clearly a couple of times," she recalled.

She then escaped through a bathroom window. She was on a ledge when the firefighters arrived at the actual scene and got her down on a ladder.

She was unharmed and eternally thankful her three young children had not been at home. She would also be forever grateful to the friend who happened to call at 6:41 a.m. She awoke to an apartment filling with smoke and she instantly dialed 911.

"If my friend didn't happen to call me ..." she told me.

She could not help but be disturbed by the mixup that delayed the firefighters at least three minutes when fire doubles in volume every 30 seconds. "To send them to the wrong place ..." she said.

Ladder 53 is the same company the city slated for closure until public outcry kept it open.

No such outcry has welcomed UCT, though it seems to make the whole city less safe.

On Tuesday, other Bronx firefighters were dispatched to 1851 Haight Ave. - only to discover the blaze was actually a block over at 1853 Lurting Ave.

A crowd of civilians had escaped the flames on their own and asked a question firefighters should never have to hear.

"What took you so long?"