Brigid Bergin, Reporter
Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
The fire union that has been critical of New York City's 911 emergency call system is blaming a communications breakdown for hampering the FDNY’s response to a Brooklyn arson fire that killed a police officer last month.
A union official said firefighters were unaware that two cops were trapped in the blaze until after they started setting up to fight the fire.
“We didn’t know that there were police officers on the scene and in a precarious situation on the fire floor until later stages of the opening operation,” Richard Alles of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association told WNYC. “We had no idea actually until the members were stretching hose.”
Officer Dennis Guerra, 38, and his partner Rosa Rodriguez, 36, became trapped by smoke on the 13th floor of a Coney Island public housing building on the afternoon of April 6. Guerra died three days later. Rodriguez was released from the hospital just last week.
Police accused 16-year-old Marcell Dockery of setting fire to a discarded mattress because he was bored. He is under indictment for murder.
Alles, a deputy chief and the UFOA’s legislative director, said it appears fellow police officers knew the two cops were in trouble but that the information was not shared with the first responding firefighters.
“It is no doubt that the other police officer could have survived had we been notified sooner and been able to get our members up on the fire floor to rescue the both of them,” Alles said.
He blamed the “operational mindset of the police department, perhaps operating on their own and not thinking about sharing information.”
Two weeks after the fire, the NYPD changed its protocols for police officers responding to fires in high-rise buildings. One change was widely reported: cops were told to take the stairs, not the elevator.
But one other important change drew less notice. If a police dispatcher becomes aware that there are uniformed officers threatened by fire, heat or smoke, the dispatcher should “verbally inform” the fire dispatcher so that the information can be relayed to fire units on the scene.
An NYPD spokesman had no further comment. The police officers’ union did not respond to a request for comment.
Fire Department spokesman Francis Gribbon offered a terse response to the claim by Alles that Guerra could have been saved.
“It’s pure speculation,” Gribbon said. He declined to elaborate.
Last week, the UFOA told WNYC that problems with the city’s 911 dispatch system, called Unified Call Taking, delayed the FDNY’s response to a convent fire on Staten Island last October, and sent eight fire trucks to a wrong address on the day a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx last December.
Those reports came as First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris put a halt to the city’s $2.1 billion overhaul of the 911 system while the de Blasio administration evaluates the contractors and operational issues.
The Coney Island fire presents different issues. Shorris told WNYC that Commissioner Bratton changed the protocols for high-rise fires after taking a hard look at what happened there.
“He did that in consultation with the Fire Department, which obviously has expertise in this,” Shorris said. “I think those are changes that will make sure that this kind of incident never happens again.”
Officer Guerra and his partner radioed for help shortly after they responded to the fire around 12:30 p.m. They were rescued about 13 minutes after firefighters arrived on the scene, according to an FDNY source and records.
The call for help went out over the police radio. Dozens of cops responded.
Alles said the battalion chief at the scene only found out about the trapped police officers when the scene became inundated with cops. He said that is when the chief realized this was not a typical fire.
“This is a high-rise building, so it’s a standpipe operation, so it takes longer to stretch hose,” he said. “In this case there was a known life hazard. Precious time was lost because additional resources would have been sent up to make the rescue.”