Officials: Lots Went Wrong With Bkyn Fire Response

CBS 2 - November 20, 2009

by Marcia Kramer

Plenty Of Blame To Go Around Following Blaze That Killed Father, 2 Sons; Unified Call Taking System Takes Beating. Many Want NYC To Install 7-1-1 System For Residents To Report Fires

NEW YORK (CBS) - There was debate Thursday over a new fire dispatch system after a father and two boys died in a Crown Heights blaze apparently sparked by burning incense.

There were apparently a number of things that went wrong at Wednesday's fire on Saint Marks Avenue where three people tragically died. The father trying to fight the fire himself instead of calling 9-1-1 immediately was a big one.

"The homeowner tired to put the fire out himself. That's always a big mistake," FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said.

But according to union officials another factor was a new dispatch system which apparently initially sent firefighters to the wrong location, causing a delay of about three minutes.

"The person who took the call, inexperienced at taking fire calls, didn't ask the nuanced questions that might have revealed sooner to the firefighters the location of the fire," said Al Hagen, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers' Association.

But just-released dispatch tapes seem to show that the person who called 911 couldn't give the exact address.

Dispatcher: "What's the location of the fire?"

Caller: "It's fire on the top building. Two windows. There's a lot of smoke."

Dispatcher: "What street? What address?"

Caller: "I do not know the address."

But it's not just the Brooklyn fire. Union officials said that since the new dispatch system -- the Unified Call Taking System -- went on line on May 9, barely trained call-takers have been making lots of mistakes.

"There's over 1,000 of actual incidents the Fire Department received from UCT, from the police call-takers with wrong addresses, wrong descriptions, wrong floors, wrong boroughs," said David Rosenzweig of the Fire Alarm Dispatchers' Benevolent Association.

The Uniformed Fire Officers president has stacks of the incident reports highlighting mistake after mistake.

"But for the luck of the draw every one of those pieces of paper could represent fire deaths. It's unsafe for the citizens," Hagen said.

The mistakes include:

* On Aug. 18 sending Ladder 28 in Manhattan to a water leak that turned out to be a pregnant woman whose water broke

* On Oct. 22 a unit was sent to deal with people overcome at a Kennedy Airport terminal. It turned out to be the wrong terminal.

* On Sept. 23 a Bronx unit was told to respond to a fire on "River Drive." It was wrong. The fire was in Manhattan on Riverside Drive.

"Let me ask you this: how many bodies, how many bodies will it take to change?" Hagen said.

"You will get a certain amount of human error," Scoppetta added.

Union officials tell CBS 2 HD that under the old system there were 10 or 12 mix-ups a year, not 1,000 since May 9. They would like to see the city institute a 7-1-1 system for people to report fires.