It Seemed Like 'Forever': Did 911 Fail a Burning Convent?

Anatomy of A Call For Help

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sister Denise Martin inside the new St. Joseph Hill convent months after a fire severely damaged their old house. (Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

About 5:30 a.m. last Oct. 12, a nun called 911 to report a fire on the grounds of the St. Joseph Hill Academy, a convent on Staten Island.

A recording of that call shows the nun, Sister Denise Martin, struggling to communicate with the 911 operator as she tried to explain how to get to the convent, which was located behind a school.

It is a painful conversation to hear. A couple of times the nun coughed from the smoke. The 911 operator told Sister Denise to calm down. “Please hurry,” Sister Denise said.

In a second call, to a second 911 operator, she said that the other nun living in the convent, Sister Regina, had jumped out a second-floor window to escape the fire and needed an ambulance. Sister Regina was seriously injured. Three vertebrae were broken and she is now in physical therapy. 

A truck from Engine 160 showed up seven minutes from the original call. The average time is under five minutes. Those two minutes can mean life or death, or further loss of property, in many situations.

"It seems [like] forever,” before the fire department arrived, Sister Denise told WNYC. “When you are in the process of an emergency like that, it seems very long.”


Those lost two minutes are likely a result of what some say are the dangerous limitations of the city's 911 dispatch system, called Unified Call Taking, say representatives of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, who provided recordings and documents about the incident to WNYC.  

Lt. Jim McGowan of the UFOA said the trucks were delayed because the new system meant it took more than two minutes for the 911 operator to get the fire department on the line after Sister Denise's. 

The Fire Department says it is looking into the matter.

The union has complained about the UCT system since it was unveiled in May 2009, calling it dangerous for New Yorkers and firefighters. “It’s a total failure and it’s still not fixed,” McGowan said.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced UCT as part of the city’s $2.1 billion upgrade of 911 communications. The upgrade began in 2004 after serious flaws in the 911 system were exposed by the 9/11 terror attack and the 2003 blackout.

UCT was meant to save callers from having to repeat information. City officials said it would reduce response times and save lives.

But McGowan said all the system has done is produce stacks and stacks of complaints that he collects in his office —  4,500 during the five years the union has been collecting them. Time and time again, fire trucks end up being dispatched to wrong addresses or to emergencies with little or no information.

And he said it has not reduced response times.

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a halt to all spending on the overhaul, which is already more than $1 billion over budget. He demanded a comprehensive review. The administration, which has argued that the complaints represent a fraction of 1 percent of the hundreds of thousands of fire calls a year, declined to comment for this story.

Prior to the implementation of UCT, Sister Denise’s 911 call would have been handled differently. Back then, a 911 operator would have immediately patched in a fire dispatcher to take the call and gather the information.

But under UCT, the 911 operator took Sister Denise’s call and sent the information electronically to the Fire Department. The fire dispatcher was essentially cut out of the process, coming on the line only at the end of the call to verify the information.

“You call 911 and then you’re waiting for the fire engines to come…I mean I could hear the crackling and the wood coming down,” Sister Denise said.

She said she also understood that the first 911 operator was only doing her job. “I don’t know if I can fault her or anybody,” Sister Denise said. “Everybody was trying to do their best at the time with the situation.”

The fire was caused by vandals, authorities said. Three men have been arrested and are awaiting trial.


David L. Lewis


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Comments [7]

Lynn from Ohio City

Listening to these 911 calls irritated me. The caller is in a burning building, she clearly gave enough information to find the fire and victim. She gave the name of the convent and it's in the old home not new one and how to access it. Not everything is going to be on your map. Stop questioning the poor woman, get the fire dept enroute and get her out of the building already. The dispatcher could have easily googled the name of the convent and her phone number if she was having that much trouble with an address. The dispatcher should not be blaming the phone system. Start looking at your training available and use this as a training tool.

May. 22 2014 05:36 PM
Chris Garvey from highway, water, or RR unknoown to 911

In the 1980's a we came across a man having a heart attack on the beach on the West side of City Island. The Doctor in our group called 911 and handed me his cell phone. 911 insisted on the nearest intersection, which was a long block away from the beach. 911 refused to recognize the existence of Eastchester Bay, or its beach. I walked to City Island Ave. so I could direct the ambulance after it arrived at the wrong location.

A few years ago I tried reporting a stalled car on the Long Island Expressway by exit number and name. They insisted on knowing what borough I was in, though being near the Brooklyn-Queens border I didn't know. The LIE and its exits were incomprehensible to the operator.

Children in a rowboat sinking off City Island in City Island Harbor called 911 and the Operator failed to report their location. They all drowned.

Just South of the recent Spuyten Duyvil derailment, The Spuyten Duyvil Bridge is a swing bridge that carries Amtrak's Empire Corridor line across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek between Manhattan and the Bronx. I called 911 to report that the bridge operator had abandoned his post with the bridge closed, illegally blocking all navigation from the Harlem River. 911 had no idea where this Bridge was, nor the Hudson River, nor the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, nor the railroad, nor the latitude and longitude.

May. 22 2014 09:39 AM

Can't believe how ignorant and entitled some of these posts are. Brian could easily earn more doing something else. How else would public radio keep running if they didn't ask for funding? Relying on traditional ads destroys the entire concept. Just listen to 1010 WINS for a week and see how that compares. If everyone in our community gave just a few bucks, these pledge drives would be less frequent. Seriously.

May. 21 2014 10:49 PM
marianrita from Bronx, NY

On the 911 story. Several years back, I called my local precinct to report a stolen car and was told I had to call 911 (WHY?!) The 911 operator tried to tell me that the corner from where the car was taken did not exist. It seems from the current story that 911 still does not have accurate maps. They should not have to ask for cross streets for an address. That should show up right on the computer screen. This would be a relatively easy fix that could be accomplished without a massive system overhaul and could save time and lives.

May. 21 2014 10:18 PM
Dan M from Harlem

The City can't keep anything within budget. Just like CityTime, this is another billion dollar disaster but this time people's lives are at stake.
"Oh we hit another snag, we'll just need a few hundred million dollars to fix it." Hopefully some of these contractors go to jail.

In other news, I think the WNYC fund drive is now a constant thing with a few holidays without being nagged to pay for radio.

May. 21 2014 04:52 PM

Almost 500 000 dollars and 300 000 dollars for the top people and cut out the positions of the lower ones seems unjust. One would think a public radio station would see the inequality in our society today and not be a part of it.

Also it is time to change the format of the pledge week which is more than a week and now even before it begins, they are asking to give. One would almost (not quite) prefer a commercial, which by the way those testimonials are just another name for a commercial. Maybe on Pledge week they could only ask every half an hour. The constant hearing of the telephone number is so annoying. I finally turn it off. Sorry.

May. 21 2014 07:29 AM
Jessica from Park Slope

Sad story here. Lots of funddrive too. I used to give until I learned Brian makes over $300,000 and he is not alone. please.

May. 21 2014 06:51 AM

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