City Changes 911 System After Dispatching Mistakes

Gothamist - November 21, 2009

by Ben Muessig

After 911 operators mistakenly dispatched firefighters to the wrong addresses in response to at least two fatal fires, the NYPD and FDNY announced that they will alter the city's emergency phone-answering system. Police phone operators will still respond to all 911 calls - continuing the so-called "Unified Call Taking System" which was launched in May - but when a caller reports a fire, the operator will electronically transmit the data to the FDNY and an FDNY official will have the chance "to listen in on the emergency fire calls and ask additional questions," according to the Post.

The changes - which officials say are not expected to increase response time - will remain in effect until the agencies "decide it's not needed," according to 1010 Wins. Though the FDNY maintains that the existing "Unified Call Taking System" has shortened response times over the past months, firefighters unions have claimed it has resulted in several dispatching errors that delayed firefighters and even caused fatalities. The unions point out a bizarre error in which a dispatcher sent the FDNY to look for a leaky pipe in an apartment where a pregnant woman's water had just broke, and dispatching mistakes that sent firefighters to the wrong addresses in response to a deadly blaze in an illegally subdivided Woodside building and a fatal Crown Heights blaze that killed a father and his two sons just days ago.

Though the unions are blaming the dispatchers for a delayed response in Crown Heights, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told NY1 that the 911 transcripts show the triumph of the existing phone system - not its failure. "This is not a systems error," said Scoppetta of the blaze, which was reported by a schoolteacher whose students spotted the fire from their classroom window and were unsure of its exact address. "This was callers calling in, doing the best they could, by giving the location of where they thought the fire was at an intersection. And so our firefighters were there in less than three minutes. I mean it's astonishing that the union should twist it."

Fire unions aren't exactly celebrating the tweaks to the system. "It's taken a long time for them to realize how necessary and important fire emergency communication professionals are in answering fire calls which are quite different and unique than police emergency calls," said David Rosenzweig of the Fire Alarm Dispatchers' Benevolent Association, who wants the city to reinstate the old system in which specially trained fire dispatchers answered calls about fire emergencies. Rosenzweig also claimed the city was slow to fix the "Unified Call Taking System" because city officials "don't want to admit they were wrong."