New 911 Call System Defended, Denounced

SI Advance - December 11, 2009

by PETER N. SPENCER

Contrasting opinions offered at Council hearing by city and FDNY officials as well as fire unions

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE -- The city's new 911 emergency call system may be fatally flawed, or a promising technology simply going through growing pains.

Those were vastly different portraits painted by city and fire officials and the unions that represent firefighters and dispatchers at a City Council hearing yesterday.

It's the same fight that has been going on since May, when the city introduced the Unified Call-Taking (UCT) system, the backbone of a new $1.8-billion emergency communications infrastructure. Only this time, union officials contend the system's failures have cost lives.

Under the UCT, a police department 911 operator queries a caller, then transmits the data electronically to the fire dispatcher. The dispatcher then sends out trucks based on that initial message, passing along updates from 911 call takers. Theoretically, this should be faster then the old system, in which the operator would ask a few questions, then transfer the call to a FDNY call taker in a specific borough, who would then patch it to a dispatcher.

After fatal fires in Brooklyn and Queens last month were attributed to miscues in communication, the city tweaked the system to allow an FDNY call taker to listen in on the emergency fire calls and ask additional questions.

David Rosenzweig, president of the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association, said the police call takers are still making too many critical mistakes, particularly about identifying the exact location of fires. Such mistakes are critical because fires are "real-time" events, as opposed to crimes, which are more often reported after they have occurred.

LARGE INVESTMENT

"I don't blame them for spending a tremendous amount of money on the system. But this part of the system does not work. They won't acknowledge that because we do a better job," Rosenzweig said during his testimony in City Hall yesterday.

City officials dismiss the fire unions' claims as a turf war.

"Of course a fire call taker is going to be more experienced handling a fire call. The question is, can a police call taker learn to do just as good a job as a fire call taker? The answer is yes," said Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler, who has been overseeing the emergency call system.

Skyler also pointed to FDNY data that shows the new system has cut response times by almost 30 seconds, from an average of four minutes and 27 seconds in 2007, to three minutes and 58 seconds last month. Overall, city operators handle 12 million 911 calls each year. About 400-500,000 are FDNY-related.

"We are trying to reduce response times for the simple reason that it saves lives," Skyler said.

Union officials dispute the city's claim about faster response times, and contend they are distorting the stats by not measuring the extra time it takes the 911 operators to gather information -- though they don't actually have other figures to prove that.

"This is a sham response time. The truth is they are not getting there quicker," said Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.