Thursday, February 10, 2011

911 Dispatch System Under Fire

Every second counts for the FDNY when responding to fires such as the 2009 Woodhaven blaze that destroyed several homes.
By David J. Harvey

New York’s 911 system is under City Council scrutiny amid allegations from fire fighter unions that the city’s claims of lower response times are exaggerated while the Unified Call Taking system (UCT)—the city’s new cen- tralized emergency dispatch—has been blamed for sending firefighters to the wrong address during hundreds of cases.

During hearings in December 2009, City Council members investigated whether miscommunication was risking New Yorkers’ lives. More recently, a joint-committee hearing held on February 1 by three council members focused on dangerous mistakes and inaccurate response times.

According to Congresswoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), Chair of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, 911 dispatchers—who are police officers—have sent fire units to the wrong address at least 590 separate times since the launch of UCT. Two of the most notorious incidents left six dead: a father and two children at St. Marks Place in Brooklyn, and three more in Woodside.

“We cannot forget the back to back mistakes under the UCT where fire units were dispatched to the wrong addresses, sent in the wrong direction,” Crowley said at the hearing last week.

In the Woodside incident, in November 2009, dispatcher error was blamed on firefighters slow response. Responders were sent to 62nd Street rather than 65th Street. It wasn’t clear whether the residents of the illegally subdivided home could have been saved by the additional time, but at least one anonymous firefighter at the scene told the New York Times he thought at least one person would have been saved.

The mistake was used heavily in arguments that NYPD dispatchers were not as prepared to handle fire calls, and that FDNY should have a place in the UCT dispatch system. After a battle to get trained fire dispatchers back into fray, the city revamped UCT procedure—trained fire dispatchers joined fire-related reports via conference call as of November 24, 2009. Since then, the number of reported mistakes has decreased.

The City Council is also investigating why the UCT system has failed to handle heavy traffic, since it was originally proposed because of the overloaded 911 system on September 11, 2001. During the heavy storms last September and December, the UCT system crashed.

But this isn’t a new development either. The system crashed during a heat wave this past summer and part of the system had also crashed inexplicably for several hours on November 17 and 18, 2009, preventing the NYPD dispatchers from communicating with firefighters.

“The City Council has listened to testimony from New Yorkers in every borough who waited too long for 911 to answer their call,” Crowley said. “My primary concern ... is that we are investing billions of taxpayer dollars on a new system that does not seem to be working and is supposed to replace a system that was never broken.”

Timely Response

Under the UCT system, emergency response times are at an all time low, but union leaders say the numbers are misleading.

Pre-UCT, a 911 dispatcher would immediately transfer the caller once the nature of the emergency was determined. In the case of fire, a trained fire dispatcher would take over and the response clock would start.

UCT dispatchers now handle all the information taking—meant to reduce redundan- cies in the old system as well as response times—then send an alert to the appropriate fire station. Reported response times under UCT are lower than the previous system.

An FDNY spokesperson said the procedure for recording response time has not changed, but Uniformed Firefighter Association President Stephen J. Cassidy said the lack of change is the problem.

Cassidy said in a statement posted last year on the UFA website that the time the original dispatcher—the period not included in the official response time—rose from an average of five seconds in the old system to an aver- age of one minute and 15 seconds with UCT.

“Response times under the UCT have gone up, not down, as the city contends,” he said. “The City's deliberately false statistics are part of an attempt to justify closing firehouses.”

Cassidy also said that fire dispatchers averaged 45 seconds—included in the response time—to glean the same information from a caller. He said the UCT dispatchers, which are police officers, do not have the proper training in dealing with fire emergencies.

The response times were also a heavy focus of the Council hearings.

“This 911-system upgrade has proven to be flawed, unreliable and dangerous—and New Yorkers are paying the price,” Crowley said. “The one thing the UCT system has succeeded in doing is spinning emergency response times to justify budget cuts to the FDNY.”

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s 2011 budget once again proposes cutting up to 60 fire stations throughout the city, but an additional $286 million toward emergency communications was requested in January.

Spending Spree Ended

The broader Emergency Communications Transformation Program (ECTP)—which includes the UCT system—is budgeted as a $1.8 billion project and has been under development for nearly a decade. So far, the Mayor’s administration has spent roughly $650 million. Originally, the plan was to create two redundant sites for ECTP and UCT—the existing one in Brooklyn, and a second in the Bronx—at a cost of $360 million.

On January 3, City Comptroller John C. Liu denied a request from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) for an additional $286 million more to open the Bronx site. Along with denying the request for funding, Liu notified the DoITT on January 12 that he was opening a full audit into the ECTP.

“This contract would open the door to excessive spending,” said a City Comptroller spokesperson Mike Loughran.

In a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Liu pressed for the Mayor to give attention to ECTP as his office reviews what went wrong with CityTime, which was the center of a massive fraud investigation last year.

“Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith is now undertaking a comprehensive review of the City's major technology projects, beginning with CityTime, to see why certain things were missed and to make sure that additional measures or safety nets are installed to prevent waste and fraud,” Liu wrote. “The ECTP project should rank high in priority for his review to head off even more severe problems.”

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