When someone calls to report a fire, speed, precision and clarity can save lives. That makes Queens a special challenge for the New York Fire Department.
In a borough of immigrants from more than 100 nations, firefighters say emergency calls can come in languages, dialects and accents that render an address or a description of a fire scene beyond their comprehension. Add to that a street numbering system that confuses even those who were born there.
Experiment in Queens Speeds Firefighters, and Draws Criticism
The difficulties in Queens, the largest borough by land area, have long been reflected in slower fire response times. Last year, fire officials said, the average for Queens was 4 minutes 58 seconds, compared with a citywide average of 4 minutes 27 seconds.
But now, in an experiment that has provoked scorn from the largest firefighters’ union and criticism from some elected officials in Queens, the department is trying to speed response times in the borough by shortening the time dispatchers spend on the phone before they send firefighters out the door. Rather than waiting to elicit such details as the nearest cross street, the room or floor where a fire is located, and the phone number of the 911 caller, the dispatchers have been told to find out what is on fire, get the address, repeat the address and immediately send firefighters.
The other details, fire officials say, can easily be communicated by radio as the trucks are on the move. But the union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, maintains that the new policy has been proven disastrously flawed and has hampered the response to three Queens fires, two of them involving fatalities, since Feb. 21. Fire officials deny the union’s claims.
Meanwhile, Helen Marshall is meeting with unions to try to work on the response time problem:
Beep to unions: Turn up heat on FDNY