City Island Dispatch Snafu Puts System Under Fire

Chief Leader - October 13, 2009

by ARI PAUL

UFA Says Delay Caused Injuries

A call reporting a fire Oct. 5 in The Bronx that led to a fire company being sent to a cell phone tower instead of the fire scene has prompted fire unions to lash out at the centralized emergency dispatch system, saying that it has been problematic since its inception in May.

In the early morning on City Island, a woman called 911 to report a fire at her home. She was disconnected after 12 seconds, before she could tell the 911 Dispatcher her address. As per Fire Department protocol, the local fire company was sent to the tower, on the assumption that it would be in the vicinity of the fire scene.

Designed to Speed Responses

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy argued that this resulted in a delay of four additional minutes—the department claimed it was two—during which the fire gained intensity. Ten firefighters were hospitalized due to the two-floor blaze. He blamed the Unified Call- Taker system, which since May has 911 Dispatchers sending out fire companies instead of switching fire-related calls to Fire Alarm Dispatchers in an effort to shave several seconds off response times.

In the City Island incident, the caller phoned back and gave the Dispatcher the address, but the Dispatcher had already sent the companies out.

"They did not redirect the company until they got to the cell-phone tower," Mr. Cassidy said. "The answer is: They had the cell phone number, they should have called that person back immediately."

Fire officers from around the city have sent in hundreds of complaints about the system stating that companies received erroneous addresses or misleading information about what kind of incident they were responding to. Many of these incidents, Mr. Cassidy explained, were not as severe as the City Island case, but underscored what he believed was the inherent inefficiency of the UCT system. He added that the flood of complaints came in after the department asked fire companies to inform management of how the system was functioning.

Cites Waste of Resources

In one case, Mr. Cassidy said, three engine companies and two ladder companies were sent to an incident based solely on a description of a "bad smell" at the scene, which turned out not to be hazardous. The result of the UCT system, Mr. Cassidy, said was that even though 911 Dispatchers could get companies out quicker, a lack of information about incidents can result companies being sent to scenes where they don't need to be there.

"They know that they have a problem and they're in denial," he said. "They're going to get somebody killed."

The fundamental issue for the fire unions is their claim that it's more important that Fire Alarm Dispatchers take extra seconds to gather detailed information than getting companies out quicker. They also maintain that the dispatchers have more knowledge about fire incidents, which helps them allocate FDNY resources more efficiently than general 911 Dispatchers under the UCT system.

"They know how to extract information," Mr. Cassidy said of Fire Alarm Dispatchers. "They are trained professionals."

David Rosenzweig, the departing president of the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Association, echoed the sentiment.

‘System Didn't Need Fixing'

"We had a system that was not broke. It didn't require any repairs," he said. "This flawed system has been operating long enough for someone to make a decision to stop it."

Chief FDNY spokesman Francis X. Gribbon defended the system, arguing that response times and fire fatalities are at record lows.

"This is a new system," he said of UCT. "There are going to be issues. They are looking at doing additional training."

Mr. Gribbon noted that the City Island 911 caller phoned back after she was cut off and supplied an address, but said that it was more important for a Dispatcher to get a company out than to track down the address before dispatching.

Council Probe Planned

"It's like a minute just to get out the door," he said of fire companies, adding that the Dispatcher was unable to trace the cell phone number.

City Council Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee Chair James Vacca, who represents City Island residents, vowed to hold a hearing on the issue of the UCT system.

"I have questions as to how calls came in and where companies were dispatched," Councilman Vacca said. "We need clarity."