Did the City's Flawed 911 System Delay Response to Deadly Metro-North Train Derailment?

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The union that represents senior fire officers is blaming the city’s troubled 911 call processing system for a dispatching error that sent eight fire trucks to the wrong location on the day a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx last December, killing four people.

The union’s evidence for a foul-up is a dispatch ticket that resulted from the first 911 calls about the disaster. The ticket mistakenly sent trucks from four engine companies, two ladder companies, a rescue squad and a battalion chief to a small apartment building at 2501 Palisade Ave. and said the call involved a structural fire. Under "critical information," the ticket described various entryways to the building and the types of apartments inside.

The address is on a hill overlooking the spot where the speeding train ran off the tracks. There was no fire. Rebecca Sherman, who lives in the building, called 911 at 7:19 a.m. when she and her husband heard the accident below her bedroom window and jumped out of bed.

“So I called 911 and I told them exactly what I saw in front of me,” Sherman, 45, told WNYC in an interview last week. “I’m sure they came to where I reported the call, because I gave them my address, so that’s why they showed up at the building right next to mine. I don’t think at the time they realized that in order to get to the tracks, they had to have gone down into the Spuyten Duyvil station and come around.”

The United Fire Officers Association says dispatching errors have become all too common since the city declared in 2009 that 911 operators, not fire dispatchers, would handle fire calls. That new system, known as Unified Call Taking, or UCT, is part of a $2.1 billion upgrade of the 911 system that Mayor Bill de Blasio brought to a halt this week.

WNYC detailed Wednesday how UCT led to a delayed response after a frantic nun called 911 to report a fire in a Staten Island convent last October. Sister Denise Martin said the call seemed to take forever.

The mayor ordered a full-scale review of the upgrades, which are $1 billion over budget, but did not order any operational changes.

“That is our same 911 system that, thank God, in the overwhelming majority of situations functions very, very effectively,” the mayor said yesterday in response to a question from WNYC. “So that continues. Nothing will change on that front.”

The fire officers' union has released thousands of reports on confidential dispatching errors to WNYC on Fire Department forms it has been collecting since 2010. As DeBlasio suggested on Wednesday, the city has argued in the past that they represent a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of fire calls the system gets each year.

There were 74 such complaints between Feb. 17 and April 30 of this year. Of those, 29 were complaints about wrong addresses—11 of those in the wrong borough altogether. Fifteen said the operator got the nature of the incident wrong and seven were other types of misinformation. Some examples:

• April 29 Five fire trucks and a battalion chief were dispatched to Colgate Avenue in the Bronx to respond to an unstable building façade. But the problem turned out to be a raccoon. “It seemed kind of ridiculous to send five fire trucks for a raccoon,” Kathlean Lobban, 31, a neighbor of the caller, told WNYC.

• April 17 A truck from Engine 277 was dispatched in response to what was described as someone having a heart attack inside a store in Brooklyn. “The call turned out to be a shooting,” the form says. “A perpetrator walked into the bodega and shot the owner in the arm and chest. The victim ended up dying later in the hospital. We had no idea of the situation we were walking into.”

• April 9 A truck from Engine 331 was dispatched to a car fire on the Belt Parkway in Queens. Further information revealed that the car fire was actually on the Southern State Parkway on Long Island, 9.5 miles away.

• March 23 Five Bronx fire companies were mistakenly dispatched to 929 Faile St. instead of 949 Faile St. in response to what they were told was a basement fire. The incident turned out to be a water leak.

The union claims that the implementation of UCT has created a hazardous condition for its members. They have a grievance pending before the city's Board of Collective Bargaining challenging the dispatch system. The union that represents rank-and-file firefighters is also part of the action.

“The issue for us [is] we’re consumers of the information,” said Joshua Zuckerberg, the fire officers union’s attorney. “It’s critical to our jobs in fighting fires to receive complete, accurate information, and when we don’t get that information, our members are exposed to risk.”

Lawyers from the city’s Office of Labor Relations dispute the union’s charge that UCT poses a safety risk. In legal papers, city attorney Steven H. Banks said that under the system, fire units were getting to fires “faster than ever before.”

“The City stands behind the current system as the safest and most reliable 911 emergency response system the City has ever had,” Banks said in legal papers filed last month.

He also accused the union of a “xenophobic resistance to change.” City officials have also accused the UFOA and other critics of the dispatch system of using “scare tactics to protect union jobs.”

The problems with the UCT system have raised such alarm that the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, sent a letter to First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris more than a month ago urging him to scrap it.

“The system is severely and dangerously flawed,” James wrote. She requested that “all fire and medical calls” be sent to a “borough-based Fire Alarm Dispatcher.”

The public advocate’s office also reviewed dozens of UCT complaints and found that the system results in redundant questions and wasted time.

The issue of response times is difficult to calculate, because the city changed the way it measures response times in December. They are now calculated “end-to-end,” from the time a 911 operator takes a call to the time that the first fire unit gets to the scene. For the Fire Department, that has meant an increase in the average response time for a fire, up to 4 minutes 47 seconds.

The fire officers' union says in the case of the train wreck, sending the eight units to Palisade Avenue meant the trucks from Engine 52 and Ladder 52 didn’t get to the right place until seven minutes after Sherman’s 7:19 a.m. call to 911.

Fire Department documents furnished to WNYC by the union show the first two units arrived at 7:26 a.m. At 7:23 a.m., 911 got a call from a passenger on the train wondering when help was going to arrive, the documents show.

“FC [female caller] sts [states] don’t see any one yet,” one report says.

Frank Gribbon, a Fire Department spokesman, told WNYC that until now he had not heard of any complaints about the department's response to the derailment. He said there was no delay.

“It was pretty clear it was a derailment,” he said. “Aside from the terrain and the location, there were no response issues with this incident on the Fire Department’s end, whatever is on that ticket notwithstanding.”