City to change call system after Woodside fire kills 3

By Jeremy Walsh

In the wake of the fatal Nov. 7 fire that killed three people in Woodside and another blaze that caused three deaths in Brooklyn last week, the city’s police and fire departments have agreed to temporarily change a new policy that the firefighters union and some elected officials blamed for the fatalities.

The policy, called Unified Call Taking, began in May. Police call-takers have been electronically sending information about fires directly to FDNY dispatchers through a newly established electronic link. The method replaced a 1960s-era system in which police and fire department call takers separately interviewed callers.

The city has defended the effectiveness of the new policy, noting that since Unified Call Taking began, response times to structural fires dropped to three minutes 56 seconds last month compared with four minutes 10 seconds in April.

But the firefighters union has said the policy and the pressure on call-takers to transmit the information as quickly as possible has contributed to a number of tragedies, including the deaths of the three people inside the illegally converted home on 65th Street in Woodside Nov. 7. A typographical error sent the nearest fire company to 62nd Street instead, causing a five-minute delay.

City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), a member of the Council Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, hailed the Bloomberg administration’s decision to change the policy.

“New Yorkers should not second-guess whether the general operator fielding the emergency call will get the address right,” she said. “Firefighters should not second-guess where they are going. There simply isn’t the time in a fire.”

The modified procedure now calls for the police call-taker to conference in a Fire Department call-taker who will have the opportunity to ask additional questions of the caller if necessary and verify the accuracy of what is to be transmitted to Fire Department dispatchers.

“This modification should not increase response time, but will help train police call-takers as they take on this relatively new and important responsibility,” the Police Department said in a statement.

The new procedure began Tuesday and was to last “until both agencies deem it unnecessary,” according to the Police Department.

In addition to the Woodside blaze, firefighters responding to a Nov. 18 blaze at 654 St. Mark’s Ave. in Brooklyn ended up at the incorrect address, taking between three and four minutes to find the fire, which killed a 42-year-old man and his two children.

Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), chairman of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, has also warned that dispatchers have sent fire engines to the nearest cellular phone transmitter instead of the location of the fire since the implementation of the new policy.

A hearing on the policy has been scheduled for Dec. 10.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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