Councilman, union blast Queens fire response

February 26, 2008 4:00:59 PM PST
Uniformed Firefighters Association leaders were joined by City Councilman Leroy Comrie Tuesday to express their outrage with the FDNY's Queens Pilot Dispatch policy and overall response times in the Borough of Queens. In the last five days, there have been two fatal fires in Queens, as well as a third incident Tuesday morning that resulted in a firefighter suffering serious burns to his hands, face and neck.

Last Thursday, 5-year-old boy Jason Guallpa died when firefighters were dispatched to a wrong address at a fire in Corona, Queens. It took five minutes for trucks to arrive. Officials say they were given a wrong address, but that did not significantly delay their response.

Then, on Monday, 87-year-old Emma Calendar died when the FDNY failed to dispatch an adequate number of ladder companies to a fire in her home in Hollis, Queens.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, firefighter Robert Grover, from Ladder 143, was hospitalized at the Cornell Burn Center after firefighters were dispatched to the wrong address and wrong street in Jamaica, Queens.

Due to pressure to improve Queens response times to fires (4:58 in 2007), on February 13 the FDNY instituted a Queens Pilot Program to get emergency calls out before all pertinent information has been collected from the caller.

"In the last five days, Queens has seen two fatal fires, and this morning a firefighter suffered severe burns," UFA president Steve Cassidy said. "The department's new policy is flawed and is resulting in firefighters being dispatched with incorrect information to wrong addresses. The results have been disastrous."

"These three tragic incidents in the last five days dramatically indicate the need for additional firefighting resources in the borough of Queens," Comrie said. "This dispatch policy clearly doesn't take into account the multiple same-numbered addresses of the borough...As the fastest-growing borough with over 100 languages, Queens presents challenges that the FDNY's current dispatch policy doesn't effectively meet."

The New York City Fire Department issued the following statement in response:

"In the last two weeks, average response times to structural fires in Queens have dropped by 24 seconds under a new pilot program in the borough. This means firefighters are getting to fires faster, which means they - and the public - are better protected.

"Assertions that this new initiative has caused delays or problems at three recent fires are simply not true.

"Furthermore, it is the height of irresponsibility for the union to suggest two deaths are related in any way to this program."

Background on pilot program:

Traditionally, FDNY dispatchers ask a detailed series of questions before dispatching units to the scene of a reported emergency. The existing protocol gathers a lot of specifics -- but delays the rollout of the first responding units.

The pilot program in Queens involves dispatchers asking just two basic questions of callers reporting emergencies before dispatching the first units to the scene: Where is the address and the borough of the fire or other emergency, and the nature of the fire or other emergency. That's enough information for dispatchers to tailor the response.

Normally, dispatchers would ask for a cross-street, a callback number, and they'd possibly ask for additional specifics.

The only questions they are not routinely asking now as part of the pilot program are a cross-street, and a callback number. Right now, the FDNY says holding back on those two questions alone will trim between 25-30 seconds off the average dispatch time.

Even under the pilot program, if dispatchers feel they need additional information, they will ask it before dispatching a call.

The FDNY denies union allegations that dispatchers are being pressured to dispatch faster and without key information they need.

Chief Sal Cassano, the FDNY Chief of Department -- it's highest ranking uniformed officer -- says "The allegations are just not true."

And with regard to the union charges that first responders didn't have the right equipment to handle window bars:

"We have a safety bulletin in place that specifically addresses window bars. And it states that this information, if known, (allows) the incident commander (to) special call additional units. They have forcible entry equipment aboard all ladder companies. The initial response on the window bar alarm was two engines, a ladder company and a battalion chief."

Chief Cassano says if more than one call had been received, you'd get an additional ladder and engine company on the initial response.