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At a City Council hearing last week spotlighting recent outages in the FDNY’s dispatching system, union leaders turned the focus to the beleaguered workers tasked with taking calls and dispatching first responders to the 1.8 million fires and medical emergencies that happen in the city each year.
Council Members called the hearing to get answers about several recent outages that have hit the FDNY’s emergency response system since the department’s computer-aided dispatch system, known as FireCAD, went online in 2021. According to a report assembled by the Council’s Committees on Technology, and Fire and Emergency Management, there have been three separate outages in the FireCAD system since it was introduced, for a total of just over 1 hour of downtime.
EMSCAD, a similar dispatching service but for medical emergencies, has had three separate outages in that same period lasting a total of four and a half hours, according to the report. That service was last updated in 2017 but the system as a whole is more than decades old, and wasn’t included in the comprehensive $22 million revamp that the firefighter dispatching system received in 2021.
The most serious shutdown of these dispatch services occurred Oct. 12, when, according to Jonpaul Augier, the FDNY’s deputy commissioner for dispatch operations, an outside contractor mistakenly pushed two emergency power off buttons in the basement of the department’s dispatch center in Brooklyn, thinking that the buttons would open an exit door.
The shutdown forced dispatchers to frantically use pencil, paper and telephones to get directives out to first responders as 911 calls came in, with some services not coming back online until late in the afternoon.
“Every primary critical system that was knocked offline that morning was immediately mitigated with a technical or operational alternative,” Augier said at the hearing, playing down the effects of the shutdown. “For as much as an outage of this was disruptive, it was a positive outcome that the systems in place performed as they did.”
‘Staffing is atrocious’
But since that shutdown, the EMSCAD system has suffered two others, according to Oren Barzilay, the president of Local 2507, which represents uniformed EMTs and their dispatchers. The shutdowns, however, are only half of the problem with the FDNY’s dispatch system, according to Barzilay, who says that there are simply not enough dispatchers to take in the number of calls coming through.
“Staffing is atrocious at the EMS dispatch centers. We are so short-staffed that callers cannot be accessible to operators,” Barzilay said at the hearing. The FDNY emergency medical services dispatching unit is budgeted for 450 workers, 60 of them supervisors, but Barzilay says that there are currently just 264 active employees working in this unit. Those workers are split into shifts, so the actual number of dispatchers answering 911 calls at any given time is far lower.
When 911 operators pick up a call and cannot reach an EMS dispatcher, the operators (who are employed by the NYPD) will instead automatically file a dispatch directly into the EMSCAD system. This automatic computerized dispatch system, Barzilay said, can leave out crucial pre-arrival instructions that EMTs need before getting to the scene of an emergency that they would normally get if they were dispatched directly by a human employee.
“Thirty to 40 percent of 911 calls [for EMS] go unanswered, they are just automatically entered by the police dispatcher,” Barzilay said, “so staffing is a major problem for us.” When call volumes are at their highest, EMT dispatchers answer between 200 and 300 calls an hour, according to Barzilay.
‘We power the city’
Faye Smyth, president of the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association, testified at the hearing that FDNY dispatchers have been overworked as well. "Our staffing has been very short for so long,” Smyth testified at the hearing. “We have been regularly ordered in on our day off because we are so short-staffed.”
Smyth added that dispatchers she represents often work back-to-back 16-hour days, despite contractual requirements that dispatchers work four 12-hour shifts each week with specific days off.
“We power the city for fire engines, we care about our units in the field, we care about the public,” Smyth said at the hearing, “but my people have been doing back-to-back tours like this since the beginning of Covid.”
The FDNY is budgeted for 207 dispatcher positions, 197 of which are filled, according to Augier, the deputy commissioner for dispatch operations.
He testified that “the work is underway” to replace the dated EMSCAD system and that the FDNY expects development to begin in early 2023. Augier said the new system will offer “greater system availability, increased functionality, and architecture compatible with next generation 911.”
Without staffing increases, however, Barzilay feels that problems will persist. “We only have 30 to 40 people on the phone at a time. For a city as busy as ours, it's just unacceptable,” he said at the hearing. “Our members suffer PTSD from taking calls back-to-back-to-back. It's never ending, the calls just keep coming in and there's no manpower.”
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