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

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Sister Denise Martin inside the new St. Joseph Hill convent months after a fire severely damaged their old house.

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.