Brooklyn Fire Deaths Spur Altered Dispatch System

Chief Leader - November 24, 2009

by ARI PAUL

NYPD, FDNY to Coordinate

The Fire and Police Departments Nov. 20 announced changes to the controversial Unified Call Taker 911 system, after fire unions accused the program of causing unit delays resulting in three deaths and a serious injury in two Brooklyn fires two days earlier.

"Under a modified procedure intended to reduce the likelihood of inaccurate information being sent, the Police Call Taker will now also conference in a Fire Department Call Taker who will listen to the call, have the opportunity to ask additional questions of the caller if necessary, and verify the accuracy of the information which the Police Call Taker transmits to the Fire Dispatchers," the agencies said in a joint statement. "This modification should not increase response time but will help train Police Call Takers as they take on this relatively new and important responsibility."

More Training for P.D. Staffers

They added, "In late October, based on a review of the first six months of Unified Call Taking, Police and Fire launched a new training program and more than half of the Police Call Takers have received it. This new procedure, which will begin the morning of Tuesday, November 24, will supplement that training and last until both agencies deem it unnecessary."

A father and his two children were killed in a fire caused by burning incense in an apartment on St. Marks Ave. and Rogers Ave., although fire companies initially arrived at the wrong address at Prospect Pl. Another individual was severely injured in a separate fire in the borough.

The UCT-instituted in May-is meant to reduce response time by having a 911 Dispatcher send out companies when an address is confirmed. The Fire Department claims this has reduced response times. The unions counter that Fire Alarm Dispatchers are better trained for the job and that under UCT companies have frequently been dispatched to the wrong addresses, allowing fires to intensify. They also allege that the system has been responsible for fire fatalities and massive property loss in the last several months.

'System Doesn't Work'

"As we have said in the past, the new dispatch system does not work," Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy said in a statement following the Nov. 18 fires. "Firefighters demand that the Com- missioner and Mayor restore the fire dispatch system back to the efficient level at which it functioned pre-UCT."

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Alexander Hagan said of last week's change, "We believe that this is a perfect example of good government, when labor points out a problem to management and management acknowledged there's a problem and takes steps to rectify the situation. We are hopeful that this remedy fixes the problem, but if not, we believe that the Bloomberg administration will take whatever steps are required to fix it."

A City Council hearing on the system originally scheduled for Nov. 23 will take place Dec. 10.

The FDNY said in response to the union complaint that the 911 callers could not provide with Dispatchers with the proper address.

"The tapes prove conclusively that the statements by the Uniformed Firefighters Association falsely claiming new dispatch procedures delayed the response were misleading and were the latest in a series of inaccurate statements by the union," it said in a statement. Response time since expedited dispatch and Unified Call Taking began is down approximately 20 seconds."

Mr. Cassidy said the FDNY's response did not vindicate the UCT system in the Crown Heights case.

'Asked Irrelevant Questions'

"They failed to include a reported pay phone call from a witness identifying himself as Gordon Burress to NY1, who claimed 9/11 operators were asking him irrelevant questions," he said. "The tapes also reveal that the two different operators were clearly not capable of extracting the necessary information to get firefighters to the scene of the emergency."

Under the old system, fire calls were handled by Fire Alarm Dispatchers. The UCT dispatched Police and Fire Department units, instead of transferring the call to department specialists. The FDNY has also argued that the UCT system will improve with more training, and that fire response times and fire fatalities are still at all-time lows.

But David Rosenzweig, the departing president of the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association, contended that the reported response times under the UCT are not accurate, because the clock starts after a company is dispatched and not when the call initially comes in.

"The Fire Department doesn't have available to them the processing time," he said.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said the processing time was taken into account.

Not Suitable for Big City?

Glenn Corbett, a Professor of Fire Science at John Jay College, said that consolidating emergency response dispatching in small towns might be efficient but does not work in a place like New York City.

"This might be one of those things where it is literally too big and in this particular case having kept them separate would have been a more advisable situation," he said.

James Vacca, chair of the Council's Fire and Criminal Justice Service Committee, said in a statement, "These accounts of lost minutes and lost lives are startling, and the Fire Department's explanations are coming up short."