FDNY Releases 911 Call From City Island Fire

NY 1 - October 07, 2009

by Roger Clark

As investigators look into what caused an early-morning fire Monday on City Island that severely damaged a building, the fire department released a 911 call at the center of a dispute over firefighters' response time.

Uniformed Firefighters Association officials say an inexperienced fire dispatcher gave the crew the wrong address.

But fire officials say the original call went dead before an actual address was given, and that the operator sent crews from Ladder 53 to the location of the call, which turned out to be a cell phone tower. The fire ended up being about a mile away.

The New York City Fire Department maintains the dispatcher handled the situation correctly, and said that the 911 call backs their judgment. In the call, an operator is heard asking, "911, Operator 1329. What's your emergency?"

The caller responded, "Um, yeah, there's a fire in the house.... [Inaudible] ... I'll just call you back."

Once the call abruptly ended, FDNY officials said the dispatcher followed correct procedure and sent the crew to the cell tower that relayed the call. When they finally arrived at the fire, crews had to battle the flames at the mixed-use building on City Island Avenue for more than 90 minutes.

"Units arrived at the scene within minutes and were faced with a heavy volume of fire," said FDNY Deputy Chief Thomas Dunne. "Fire appears to have started on the first floor, but there was fire extension to the second floor, and to the front section of the roof area."

Ten firefighters from Ladder 53 were taken to Jacobi Hospital for minor injuries.

Union officials said the real problem lies with the new system for taking emergency calls, which was started five months ago, which they say pushes units out the door before they have proper information.

The system funnels all calls to New York Police Department operators, who then send messages to FDNY and EMS dispatchers.

The ladder company involved in Monday's fire had been scheduled for closure in July until funding was restored to keep it open.

"Having Ladder 53 today made the difference of life and death," said City Councilman James Vacca.

The building housed 11 people in four apartments, with a food store and beauty salon on the ground floor. All of the residents were able to escape without injury.

"I was on my way to work, and I noticed that there was a fire, and I noticed that nobody was outside, so I knew that it was a new fire," said a local resident. "I know the people that live there and I go there all the time because there's a hair salon there and I get my hair done there, so I pulled over and I just started banging on doors and everything. That's what happened." "I was sound asleep, didn't even realize anything," said a building resident. "I just came downstairs and when I opened the door, they say 'fire, fire, fire get out.' I didn't think about nothing else, just to get my kids out."

The flames still took their toll, heavily damaging the To Go Express food shop owned by Rafael and Patrice Ortega.

"I'm very sad because it is my future, it is my life, and everything is gone now," said Rafael Ortega.

"I'm in shock," said his wife. "I can't even believe it happened. I'm still like, this is a nightmare."

A cause has not yet been determined.