Three 911 calls from two nuns trapped by fire in a Staten Island convent offer a harrowing look into their calm but desperate pleas and how the convent's street address allegedly slowed an emergency response process where every second counts.
Officials from the firefighters union say the calls, obtained by public radio station WNYC, illustrate how the city's $2 billion Unified Call Taking system, which requires 911 dispatchers to get information before looping in someone from the fire department, is failing city residents.
Sister Denise Martin called for help when smoke and flames engulfed St. Joseph Hill Convent on Hylan Boulevard last fall.The calls can be unsettling to listen to:
"OK ma’am, are you sure the building number is 8-5-0?" asked the dispatcher
"Am I sure? It’s eight five zero," said Sister Denise. "That’s the school. You have to go past the school, go around…make a right on Fingerboard and a right on Columbia….but please hurry ‘cause it’s coming."
Another nun, Sister Regina Gegic, had to jump from a second story window to escape the fire. She also called 911 and spoke to a different dispatcher. WNYC published the calls in an interactive graphic:
The Unified Call Taking system was implemented so callers wouldn't have to repeat themselves in an emergency. But Lt. Jim McGowan of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association says "It's not working. It's never worked."
He said the union has received thousands of complaints over the last few years about confused dispatchers and delayed response to fires.
"We, on behalf of both the safety of the people of this city, but also on behalf of the taxpayers, were not about to throw good money after bad, unless we knew it could be fixed," said the mayor.