UFA Turns Up Juice To Rewire Dispatch System

Chief Leader - November 17, 2009

by ARI PAUL

Council Inquiry on Flaws

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn next week will have the Council examine the city's Unified Call Taker 911 system, leading Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy to predict it will increase the clamor to have fire calls handled by Fire Alarm Dispatchers.

Since May, the city has centralized emergency call-taking in the UCT system, but fire unions claim that this has resulted in units being sent to wrong addresses on numerous occasions. On Nov. 7, a fire company in Queens was sent to an erroneous location, delaying its response to a fire in which three people died.

City's Case for System

Mr. Cassidy explained that fire officers had been complaining about the system, but Fire Department officials have defended it, saying that it is new and that improvements and training programs are in the works.

A mayoral spokesman contended said that a variety of factors contributed to the deadly fire in Queens, including illegally subdivided floors and a lack of smoke detectors. The main benefit of UCT, the FDNY has said, is that Dispatchers get addresses from callers, quickly send the companies to those locations, and then gather more information in order to decrease response times.

But there is a widespread problem, the union claims, noting that earlier this month Engine Company 257 in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn received erroneous locations for four different calls within seven hours, although department officials told WCBS-TV News that this was not a result of the UCT system. In past instances, Mr. Cassidy noted, fire companies have been sent to cell phone towers instead of fire locations, causing potentially dangerous delays. The Council will consider the issues at a Nov. 23 hearing.

Wasting Resources

"A segment of the problem is not only dispatching the wrong address but the improper amount of resources," Mr. Cassidy said. "When your resources are being improperly deployed, because of a system that doesn't work, you're creating gaps in the fire grid. That leads to additional delays and possible fatalities."

The root of the problem, Mr. Cassidy said, was that Fire Alarm Dispatchers had several hundred hours of training in how to handle fire calls, while the UCT Dispatchers only had eight hours' worth, and that there was a vast difference in fire calls compared to other emergency calls.

Skills Not Adaptable?

"If you asked a house painter to now paint pictures for a museum, I could do one but that doesn't mean I could do the other," he explained.

The FDNY has maintained that despite problems with the UCT system, it was effective in getting companies out of their firehouses quicker, and that response times in the city—which are below the national average—are decreasing as are fire fatalities.

Mr. Cassidy said he expected the Council hearing on the UCT system would put some pressure on the FDNY and City Hall to re-examine the program.

"This is an administration that has never had the ability to admit they made a mistake," he said.