Firefighters Cite Error in Dispatch of Fatal Fire

NY Times - November 09, 2009


The firehouse at Queens Boulevard and 65th Street was only a few blocks from a fatal fire that erupted early Saturday, killing three people.

Yet an emergency dispatcher's keystroke error sent two fire trucks from that firehouse - as well as four other Fire Department vehicles from other companies - toward the wrong address on 62nd Street, rather than the illegally subdivided wooden home at 42-40 65th Street in Woodside where the fire started.

It is not clear how much the mistake, which was quickly corrected while the vehicles were en route, delayed the response or whether a quicker arrival would have saved the lives of the people killed in the fire. But firefighters quickly cited the lapse as a sign that the city's new dispatching system, put in place over union objections, was not working.

One firefighter on the scene, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to speak to the media, described his frustration at learning that firefighters from the nearby station were not the first to arrive on the scene because of the error. Another said he believed arriving two minutes earlier could have saved the life of at least one victim who was yelling for help when the first firefighters showed up.

City officials defended the system, saying that it has improved response times - this October the average was 3 minutes 56 seconds, down from 4 minutes 12 seconds last October - and that the old system was also subject to human error. The response time for Saturday's fire was 4 minutes 55 seconds, according to the Fire Department.

"It's a new system; it's a system that's seen as an improvement," said Jim Long, a Fire Department spokesman. "Like with any change, there are things to be worked out."

Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, acknowledged the dispatch error but noted that the building lacked working smoke detectors, the basement windows were barred and the floors were illegally subdivided. "In the scheme of errors that contributed to three people dying, these are probably more significant," he said.

The city shifted to the new Unified Call Taking system, which upgraded the technology. It also streamlined the way dispatchers took calls. Instead of redirecting calls to Fire Department dispatchers, who would repeat some of the same questions while taking the information, the new system calls for a single police dispatcher to take all the information and route it electronically to the Fire Department.

Alexander Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said those electronic forms frequently contained errors or omitted important information that firefighters need. He said the union filed an official complaint last week alleging that the change compromised the safety of fire personnel. "There's been a litany of problems," Mr. Hagan said. "It's been going on for months, and it's getting to be scary."

The Fire Department is investigating the cause of the fire, Mr. Long said.

The three victims were all from Bangladesh, friends and neighbors said. One of the victims was identified by the medical examiner's office as SD Jahan, 31. The other two were identified by Mohammed Hasan, who said he was Mr. Jahan's uncle, as Abdul Kuddus and Bishajit Das. Four others were injured in the blaze.

The basement of the two-story wood-frame house had been illegally subdivided into four bedrooms, a kitchen and two bathrooms, said Tony Sclafani, a spokesman for the Buildings Department. Mr. Hasan said he visited the basement and was shocked by the shabby, crowded quarters. "It's not a place a human being can live," he said.

The Buildings Department issued several violations on Saturday related to the subdivision and the lack of a second exit, Mr. Sclafani said. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office in Queens confirmed that prosecutors were investigating the case but that no decision had been made whether to press charges.

Rebecca White contributed reporting.