The New York City Fire Department is taking heat over the Unified Call Taking (UTC) system it implemented in May, with some criticizing the new dispatch technology and accompanying procedures as flawed and contributing to an increase in mishaps involving firefighters sent to incorrect addresses while fires raged nearby.

This issue has come to a boil following a mistaken computer transmission from a 911 operator on the UTC system early Saturday morning that sent a team of FDNY firefighters off in the wrong direction, adding precious seconds to their response time to a fire that killed three people in the Queens neighborhood of Woodside, the New York Daily News reported Wednesday.

Although the UTC system is not being blamed for the deaths—the building lacked working smoke detectors, the basement windows were barred and the floors were illegally subdivided—the Uniformed Fire Officers Association is using the instance as an opportunity to highlight what the union claims to be an increase in dispatch errors since the UTC system was put in place. Union President Alexander Hagan told The New York Times that the system's electronic forms frequently contain errors or omit important information that firefighters need. He said the union filed an official complaint last week alleging that the change compromised the safety of fire personnel, according to The Times. "There's been a litany of problems," The Times reports Hagan as saying. "It's been going on for months, and it's getting to be scary."

The UCT is one of the major components of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $2 billion upgrade of the 911 system, and one of the few that began on schedule, according to the Daily News. Hagan, who's been busy putting his views on the UTC system out before the public, told the Daily News, "There's been an epidemic of incorrect addresses." The union claims to be receiving a half-dozen to a dozen reports of mistaken transmissions daily from commanders in the field. Hagan is urging the Bloomberg administration to abandon the new system and instead create a separate 711 number for fire emergencies, the Daily News reports.

Under the old process, when someone called 911 to report a fire, the call first went to a police department operator, who would then initiate a conference call with the fire department and the caller, where the address and other important information would be repeated. The fire department representative would then forward the information to an FDNY dispatcher to deploy the proper response. The UTC system was designed to let the initial police operator handle both fire- and law enforcement-related phone calls and share information electronically between the departments and dispatchers (as opposed to the conference call), Government Technology reported in May. The goal was to eliminate the time it takes to process the information and respond to emergencies.

The FDNY's new dispatch protocols, plus mistakes in 911 call taking, have led to units arriving out of order, former firefighter Jay Lowry wrote on "All in the name of artificially reducing response times, the system doesn't take into account how firefighters operate in the street," he added.

Regardless of what happens to the UTC system, the FDNY is making major investments to upgrade its technology. The department is in the middle of a four-year, $25 million project to implement a new Coordinated Building Inspection and Data Analysis System (CBIDAS) that will establish one centralized depot of fire-inspection information. Another FDNY information technology project under development is designed to help the department determine whether it should relocate, and possibly consolidate, city firehouses to better accommodate the city's shifting population.

Image © Chuck Moser