Two borough council members last week raised questions about the validity of record-low response times of the past two years.
At a joint oversight hearing to obtain an update on the Unified Call Taking system, City Council members Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, and Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), chairwoman of the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, asserted that response times have to be re-examined under the relatively new 911 system.
“We need the most honest information available to us in order to improve this system,” Vallone said. “We all want to hear that response times have decreased but the information better be accurate, especially as fire companies are constantly threatened in budget negotiations. We have a new call-taking system; for that reason we also need a new way of collecting response-time data.”
Implemented in May 2009, the UCT was designed to centralize and integrate the call-taking and dispatch operations among the NYPD, FDNY and Emergency Medical Services. Its purpose was to streamline the 911 process by reducing handling time for fire calls and allow first responders to reach residents more quickly.
The average response time for the FDNY to a structural fire in 2010 was 4 minutes, 1 second — the fastest ever recorded, said Fire Department spokesman Steve Ritea. In 2009, it was 4 minutes, 2 seconds. He also noted that 2010 marked the fewest fire deaths in the history of the department.
“The UCT has definitely played a role in bringing down the response times,” Ritea said, before noting that in 2005 the average response time was 4 minutes, 36 seconds.
Prior to the introduction of the UCT, all 911 calls were initially answered by a police call taker who collected caller and incident information. If the incident was a fire, the police call taker would conference in an FDNY dispatcher. During the conference call with the caller and the police call taker, the FDNY dispatcher would collect similar FDNY-related information.
Under the UCT, police call takers can handle both fire and law-enforcement related emergencies.
In the past, Vallone and Crowley pointed out, time spent talking to fire dispatchers counted towards response times. The UCT cuts that dispatcher out of the process, so time spent gathering information no longer is counted, which both council members claim “artificially reduces response times.”
“To date, this 911-system upgrade has proven to be flawed, unreliable and dangerous — and New Yorkers are paying the price,” Crowley said in response to the hearing. “The one thing the UCT system has succeeded in doing is spinning emergency response times to justify budget cuts to the FDNY.”
Ritea noted, “The reality is we’re getting out onto the roads faster. Part of it also is the hard work and dedication of our members.”
Crowley also cited “mistakes under the UCT” where fire units were dispatched to the wrong address, including one in Woodside in November 2009 that resulted in the deaths of three men.
“The fact is after the launch of UCT, 911 call takers sent fire units to the wrong address at least 590 separate times,” Crowley testified last week. “And a reported 20,000 New York City resident addresses in the fire dispatch system are not recognized in the police system.”