City and Union Officials Clash Over the Effectiveness of a New Fire Dispatch System

NY Times - December 11, 2009


City officials and union representatives testifying at a City Council hearing on Thursday presented divergent evaluations of a firefighter dispatching system that was instituted in May.

The new system, referred to as unified call-taking, is meant to streamline the way firefighters are sent out on runs, but it has quickly become the subject of some controversy. Fire union officials say it sometimes provides firefighters with incomplete or inaccurate information, even as the city has credited the new system with helping to cut response times to historic lows.

"It saves valuable time,"Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler told the council members. "That is unassailable, in my opinion."

But Capt. Alexander Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association union, called reports of lower response time "statistical trickery," adding, "The people were not getting a faster response time. They were getting a snow job."

For years, people reporting fires spoke to Police Department 911 operators before being transferred to Fire Department dispatchers, who quizzed the callers before sending out firefighters. Under the new system, 911 operators answer calls, collect information and dispatch units.

Since May, there have been several well-publicized cases in which operators directed firefighters to the wrong address. City officials attributed some of those mistakes to miscommunication between callers and operators that could take place under any system, new or old.

Mr. Skyler repeatedly told the council members that limiting emergency calls to one call taker was faster and more efficient. But some council members asked whether 911 operators, trained primarily in responding to crimes rather than fires, might take longer to elicit information that could benefit firefighters.

And fire union officials asserted that response times were being calculated in a misleading way. They said such calculations before the new system began included the time that fire dispatchers spent on the phone questioning callers. Now, the times do not include the period that 911 dispatchers are making similar queries, union officials said.

"I know that they are not counting a period of time that's significant,"said Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Francis X. Gribbon, the Fire Department's chief spokesman, said that he disagreed with Mr. Cassidy's description, adding that, under the old system, Fire Department dispatchers usually asked questions that had already been asked by the 911 operators. Therefore, he said, simplifying the procedure saved time.

The new system was recently changed so that Fire Department dispatchers monitor reports of fires received by 911 operators.