In Our Opinion
Nov 24, 2009 | 2710 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two tragic, fatal fires have left many New Yorkers wondering if the city’s 9-1-1 system has what it takes to keep us safe. A short answer, to judge from recent results, is no.

But the issue deserves closer attention.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has invested an enormous sum - approximately $2 billion - in a new 9-1-1 system that was started in May. The idea was solid. Its execution, we now see, not so much.

Sure, the city can argue that the kinks are still being worked out, or that the slow response times that resulted in the deaths of six people so far this month were the result of other factors.

They’d be right, partly. But the point is, we can’t afford to wait around while the city works out the new system. This is people’s lives we’re talking about. The city needs to get it right, and get it right now.

The new system, known as the Unified Call Taking (UCT) system, replaced an older 1960’s emergency response model that made little sense. For decades, when residents called in a fire, they first spoke with a police call taker, then had to repeat the entire conversation - those crucial what, where, and when details - to a Fire Department call taker.

Under UCT, callers speak with a police caller, who electronically notifies the Fire Department, which in turn sends out the fire trucks.

The idea behind it all - to eliminate an unnecessary second call - certainly makes sense.

It reeks of Bloomberg technocratic efficiency. Cut down on cost, time, and maximize on the desirable results.

Then why isn’t it working well? The Uniformed Firefighters Association is asking that right now, as are elected officials, angry residents, and even firefighters themselves (rank-and-file members have gone on record, albeit anonymously, to complain about the new system).

The fatal Woodside fire is a good case in point. After receiving a call, the UCT system sent a fire truck in the completely wrong direction away from the fire. By the time the mistake was realized, and the correction made, it was too late: three Bangladeshi men were dead in their small, illegally subdivided basement apartment.

Certainly the cramped quarters and nonfunctional smoke alarm system contributed to the fire’s escalation and their deaths, as the Fire Department has pointed out.

Even so, that’s not a good enough excuse. The city needs to do whatever it takes to fix the UCT system immediately, or else revert back permanently to the old way of doing things.

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