In Review: FDNY Battles Budget Cuts, New Dispatch System

NY 1 - December 26, 2009

by Amanda Farinacci

It was a year of major changes for the New York Fire Department, as firefighters battled the threat of budget cuts, a new 911 dispatch system, and will soon have a new commissioner. NY1's Amanda Farinacci filed the following look back at the year for the FDNY. Big changes came to the FDNY in 2009, not least of which was a move to a new dispatch system called the Unified Call-Taker system, it put responsibility for taking down information and dispatching fire units in the hands of the New York City Police Department operator, who took the initial 911 call, rather than passing the call onto a fire dispatcher.

The city says the new system shaved an average of 30-seconds off response times.

"You only have to talk to one person, not two," said Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler. "That is just the basic premise and anybody that disagrees with that, I can't explain it any clearer."

But the firefighters union, which backed City Comptroller William Thompson for mayor, says the new program actually takes longer. It says NYPD call takers are not properly trained to answer fire calls and take too long to get information.

In November, three people died in a Crown Heights fire after confusion over the location of the blaze. The union blames poorly-trained dispatchers. And while the FDNY says that's not true, police call-takers have begun conferencing-in their FDNY counterparts, to ask questions and verify answers.

Meanwhile, the tough economy took a toll on the department, as a class of probationary firefighters set to enter the fire academy in January is canceled. It remains unclear when the next class will enter the academy.

The city's budget woes had also threatened to shutter four firehouses on July 1st, and a dozen more January 1st. But a last-minute deal between the City Council and the mayor prevented that from happening.

In July, the Vulcan Society, the black firefighters association, and the Justice Department, filed suit against the FDNY, charging its entrance exam discriminates against blacks and Latinos, with minorities consistently scoring lower than their white counterparts. A judge agreed, saying the city must make some changes.

"The guy who gets 100 on this test is not going to be any better than the guy who gets an 80, so why are we using this test to determine who gets this job?" said former Vulcan Society President Paul Washington.

The city appealed the case, pointing to a new exam it started using in 2007, and said after extensive outreach efforts, minority representation is up dramatically, even though just three percent of the department is black and six percent is Hispanic.

Three construction supervisors and a subcontractor were charged with manslaughter this year; two years after a fire at the former Deutsche Bank building claimed the lives of two firefighters. Seven fire officials and two supervisors from the city's Department of Buildings are also disciplined.

And as the year closed out, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta announced his resignation, moving on to pursue teaching opportunities. He said he's leaving the department stronger than he found it – citing fire deaths at an all-time low and response times that are down.

"This is a department now that is better trained, better equipped, better prepared than it has ever been before," said the commissioner.

Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano, a 40-year FDNY veteran who has held every rank in the department, has been tapped to replace Scoppetta. The 64-year-old Staten Island resident has been cited for bravery five times, and his many years of expertise, and his relationship with the firefighter union, are widely expected to help him make tough budget decisions as the city continues its belt tightening.