NYC's 9-1-1 System Under Scrutiny After Fatal Fire

CBS 2 - November 10, 2009

by Hazel Sanchez

Unified Call Taking System -- Or UCT -- Now Known In FDNY Circles As 'You Can't Tell' After Error Slows Response

NEW YORK (CBS) - New York City's new 9-1-1 service is under scrutiny following a deadly fire in Queens. Did a simple keystroke error by the dispatcher contribute to an already dangerous situation?

Every second is precious in a fire rescue, but one mistake can cost minutes and possibly lives.

The fast-moving fire that engulfed a Queens home Saturday killed three men and severely burned three others who were trapped in illegal basement apartments.

A 9-1-1 operator mistyped the address in the city's computerized dispatching system, sending fire crews to the wrong home three blocks away.

The FDNY said the mistake cost them 90 seconds. Their response time was 4 minutes, 55 seconds, one minute over the average.

The department defended the city's Unified Call Taking system or UCT saying:

"It is pure speculation to suggest that anything -- other than a working smoke detector and adherence to building code regulations -- would have changed the outcome of this tragedy," spokesman Frank Dwyer said.

The firefighters and dispatchers unions said the weekend mix-up is added evidence that UCT is not working.

"The word out in the field with the firefighters is when a call comes in from the UCT center you can't tell where you're going. UCT -- you can't tell. You don't know where you're going; you don't know where you're going to and it's putting the public in jeopardy," said James Slevin, vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters' Association.

"The reality is the times are longer. Much longer and unfortunately we had a catastrophic event this weekend. That is not the last catastrophic even we're going to have," added David Rosenzweig of the Fire Alarm Dispatchers' Benevolent Association.

The Uniformed Fire Officers Association said the UCT system is severely flawed with widespread problems.

Last Thursday, Engine 257 in Canarsie was given the wrong addresses for four different emergency calls within seven hours.

FDNY dispatchers said the UCT dispatchers need more training.

"They got eight hours of training to answer fire calls, which is ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous and it has to be stopped before there really are some serious injuries," Rosenzweig said.

Late Monday evening, the FDNY responded regarding the four incorrect addresses given to Engine Co. 257 in Brooklyn, claiming the wrong information was not provided by the UCT center, and therefore is not proof of a system-wide problem.