Steps Taken to Reduce Mistakes on 911 Fire Calls

NY Times - November 21, 2009


Amid complaints about flaws in the city's new 911 system, New York City's Police and Fire Departments on Friday announced steps to reduce the likelihood of mistakes in handling emergency fire calls.

The agencies said Police Department workers who take 911 calls would consult with a Fire Department operator to ask questions and verify the accuracy of the information before sending a computer message to a fire dispatcher to put firefighters into action.

"This modification should not increase response time, but will help train police call takers," the agencies said.

Al Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association union, applauded City Hall and Fire Department managers. "I think it's good government at its finest," he said. "It's a perfect example of labor pointing a problem to management, management coming up with a solution."

The new steps, to begin on Tuesday, will last "until both agencies deem it unnecessary," the statement said.

In May, the city began using an overhauled 911 system. The aim was to streamline operations and save time. Rather than transferring fire and medical calls to fire and medical operators - forcing callers to repeat themselves - the police operators now send electronic messages to dispatchers from those agencies.

But, Mr. Hagan said, "the system was failing." He and others said that the computer messages omitted information and that the elimination of the fire dispatcher from the initial conversation opened the door to errors. One problem is that all fire and medical 911 calls are for immediate crises, while some police calls are for past problems or crimes, one official said.

"We handle far more numbers of immediate emergency calls than any police department in the country and far more than any agency in the city, far more," said Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's chief spokesman. "But this system gives us an opportunity to preserve the improved response times experienced through the new system."

There have been a number of missteps in the new system recently, Mr. Hagan said. Two of them occurred when emergency dispatchers made keystroke errors, causing fire trucks to race toward the wrong addresses.

One was in Queens on Nov. 7, when trucks from a firehouse blocks from a fire were initially sent toward the wrong house. Three people died, though it was unclear how much the mistake, which was corrected as the trucks were on the way, affected the outcome.

A mix-up over an address caused confusion in the response to a fire in Brooklyn on Wednesday in which six people were injured. Officials said firefighters initially responded to the wrong address because a dispatcher typed in "470 Lefferts" Avenue instead of "570."