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911 Dispatchers Mistook Deadly Metro-North Derailment For Fire, Records Say

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — New evidence revealed Thursday evening indicated that the problems with the New York City 911 system are worse than previously thought.

As CBS 2’s Alice Gainer reported, records released Thursday showed dispatchers sent several fire trucks to the wrong location during the deadly train derailment in the Bronx in December.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, a Metro-North Hudson Line train came crashing off the rails near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx – leaving four people dead and dozens more injured.

As CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported, the 911 calls started flooding in within seconds of the derailment – many of them coming from homes high above the tracks.

Rebecca Sherman was one of the first callers, at 7:19 a.m.

“You have to call when you see something like that,” Sherman said. “That’s what a good neighbor does to help people.”

First responders raced to the scene, but the Uniformed Firefighters’ Association said eight fire trucks ended up at the wrong location — on Palisades Avenue high above the tracks. Calls to 911 had been traced to the point of call rather than the site of the derailment, and they ended up at Sherman’s home.

“The woman said: ‘I don’t have a fire in my apartment. This is not a structural fire. Down on the hill and everything, there’s a train wreck,’” said union representative Lt. James McGowan.

Sherman was surprised to find the fire trucks at her home.

“They asked for my address and I gave it to them, and that’s why they sent the fire trucks here,” Sherman said. “But as soon as I saw them up there, I was like, they’re going to have to go around to Spuyten Duyvil train station to get to the derailment.”

Union officials showed CBS 2 the response ticket given to them by the 911 dispatcher at 7:20:45 a.m. It listed the caller’s apartment address and classified the incident as a structural fire instead of the train wreck she called 911 to report.

“All the members have to get back in the trucks, they’ve got to go down a big hill and everything like that — and that could take a few more minutes,” McGowan said.

Indeed, it took precious time for crews to drive down the winding streets leading to the Spuyten Duyvil station. The total response time was 7 minutes and 37 seconds, compared to an average of five minutes.

And it keeps happening. Union officials showed CBS 2 stacks of papers they said contained more than 4,500 complaints from union members about dispatcher mistakes over the past few years.

“The majority is wrong addresses, wrong apartments, wrong boroughs,” McGowan said.

City Councilman James Vacca (D-13th) said the revelation warrants immediate action.

“The revelation today is alarming if true, and it requires a full investigation,” Vacca said. “We’ve got to get to the bottom of why 911 is not doing what it should be doing.”

Vacca’s comments came before a hearing at City Hall about an upgrade to the 911 call center – which is behind schedule and over budget.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this week that he has ordered a comprehensive review of the system, and has suspended the upgrade until the review is complete.

The firefighters’ union said the fix is simple.

“If the first question was, ‘What’s your emergency?’ and they said, ‘Fire,’ and they transmitted it to the fire dispatcher, the units would have probably been sent out right away,” said union captains’ representative Derek Harkin.

The union said the quicker the response time, the more lives that could be saved.

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