A Burning Question: Why Does FDNY Use System That Keeps Sending Bravest To Wrong Sites?

NY Daily News - November 11, 2009

by Juan Gonzalez

The wood frame house at 42-40 65th St. in Woodside, Queens, where three Bangladeshi immigrants died in a blaze this weekend, is just two blocks from FDNY Engine 292.

It's so close the engine company's members could walk there in less than two minutes.

But a mistaken computer transmission from a 911 operator on the city's new Unified Call Taking system at 2:45 a.m. Saturday sent Engine 292 speeding from Queens Blvd. in the wrong direction - toward 42-40 62nd St. - records show.

Because of that mixup, the fire company had to make a circuitous 10-block trip before the 911 operator corrected the mistake and the firefighters got to the right spot.

By then, a precious 4 minutes and 55 seconds had elapsed from the time the Fire Department was notified.

When it comes to a fire, minutes and seconds can spell life or death.

By the time Engine 292 arrived, the fire was raging at the home. Two other FDNY units, Engine 325 and Ladder 163, reached the site less than 20 seconds earlier - and they came from a firehouse 14 blocks away.

So how does a company 14 blocks away arrive sooner than one two blocks away?

Welcome to the world of UCT. It's one of the major components of the Bloomberg administration's vast $2 billion upgrade of the 911 system - one of the few that began on schedule.

City Hall claims that since its launch in May, the system has improved Fire Department response times by making it possible for those who dial 911 to speak with one operator instead of a police, fire and EMS dispatcher at once.

But firefighters have begun calling the new system "U-Can't-Tell" because of the wrong addresses it keeps spitting out.

At the headquarters of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association yesterday, union leaders displayed a 5-inch stack of erroneous reports compiled over the past few months.

"There's been an epidemic of incorrect addresses," said Al Hagan, the union's president. The union says it's receiving a half-dozen to a dozen reports of mistaken transmissions every day from commanders in the field - something that happened rarely before the new system was launched.

On Monday at 7:46 p.m., for example, the system notified fire dispatchers of a blaze at 134 W. 27th St. in Manhattan. An engine was sent to the scene. Four minutes later, another message corrected the address to 134 W. 37th St. - 10 blocks away. A second engine was sent to new location.

Hagan urged City Hall to ditch the new system entirely and create a separate 711 number for fire emergencies.

"UCT is endangering the lives of the people of New York," Hagan said. "This extraordinarily expensive program has failed. It's a bottomless pit."

Hagan has instructed the union's lawyers to demand negotiations over the new system, and the City Council has scheduled hearings on it.

Fire officials concede there have been some human errors, but they say the same was true under the old system.

"Since May, we've handled maybe 50,000 to 60,000 calls with UCT," Chief of Department Sal Cassano said. There are bound to be glitches with any new system, he said, but the city has provided extra training to 911 operators, who are not accustomed to the particular needs of the Fire Department.

"We also started a reporting process for people who thought there were problems," Cassano said. "We're working with the Police Department to go over those calls."

Cassano could not immediately say how many complaints he has received. He said it was far less than the hundreds the fire union claims.