Council Plans 911 Hearing After Fire - November 20, 2009

by Jeremy Walsh

City Council members are adding their voices to calls for closer scrutiny of a new 911 dispatch system they say may be to blame for errors like the one that sent a fire truck to the wrong block of Woodside Nov. 7 in response to a fatal blaze.

The Council Fire Protection Committee was scheduled to discuss the new policy at a hearing Dec. 10. after three men died in an illegally converted two-story home at 42-40 65th St.

"I have had extensive conversations with members of the FDNY who have expressed serious concern regarding the removal of personal communication between FDNY dispatchers and 911 callers," Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) wrote in a recent letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Engine 292, located less than three blocks from the home, was initially sent to 62nd Street because of a typing error that caused a delay of 2 1/2 to three minutes, fire officials said. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation.

"There has to be an explanation for this, there has to be accountability," Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), chairman of the Fire Committee, said, although he noted it was not clear whether the new dispatch policy was to blame for the typo.. "When you're talking about fire, especially in wood frame structures that have illegal conversions, you're talking two to three minutes, you're talking life and death."

Before May, 911 calls would be answered by a call-taker who would then patch in a fire dispatcher to the call. Under the new policy, the call-taker handles the entire phone call and then relays the information to a fire dispatcher.

Leroy McGinnis, Queens Trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said the new system puts pressure on the dispatchers to keep response times low.

"The caller on the 911 tape gave the correct address to the dispatcher. The dispatcher then missed a keystroke," he said of the Woodside blaze. "It's a human error, but the error is really based on the need of these dispatchers to get units out."

Vacca said fire response times in the city have continued to decline since the policy went into effect.

Other elected officials focused on the perils of illegal conversions in the aftermath of the fire. Immediately after the fire, Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) criticized the city for not pushing harder to curtail the trend.

"To prevent tragedies like this from happening again, identifying illegal conversions and holding landlords accountable needs to be a priority for the city," he said.

An audit released in July by city Comptroller William Thompson's office found that of 8,345 properties reported for illegal conversions to the Queens Quality of Life Unit of the city Department of Buildings during the 2008 fiscal year, inspectors could not gain access to 39 percent of them.

In 23,410 inspection attempts that year, 67 percent resulted in the DOB staff failing to gain access and inspectors requested warrants to access property without the owner's permission for less than 1 percent of the inaccessible addresses, the audit found.