July 12, 2023 By Bill Parry
When a Department of Transportation truck parked on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City caught fire and exploded on Wednesday, July 5, it sent lunchtime crowds searching for cover. Panicked residents and merchants rushed to call 911 as first responders evacuated businesses and restaurants along the commercial corridor, but many reported that their emergency calls went unanswered while others encountered a busy signal and a voicemail, increasing anxiety levels across the neighborhood.
The NYPD, which runs the 911 command centers, acknowledged that there was a problem with the emergency call system that afternoon.
“New York City’s 9-1-1- system experienced a slight increase in calls on July 5,” an NYPD spokesperson told QNS. “We are actively working to improve services so wait times are rare.”
AFSCME Local 1549, the union representing the city’s 911 dispatchers, maintains that the Long Island City 911 snafu that afternoon was just the tip of the iceberg.
The union’s leadership blames chronic under-staffing, poor work conditions and management issues as the cause in recent delays in reaching 911 and not the unusually high volume of calls following the explosion, as claimed by the NYPD.
“The heroism of our first responders is on display every day. But the heroes you don’t see are the 911 operators that are there for us day and night, yet suffer under poor working conditions that go unseen and sometimes ignored,” AFSCME Local 1549 Administrator James Howell said. “We must ensure that the command centers and dispatchers are given the support and resources needed so that response times are not inhibited. Currently, that is not the case.”
Four DOT employees were working on road repairs in the area when they took a lunch break on Vernon Boulevard just before 1 p.m. They noticed the vehicle smoking and it eventually caught fire before ultimately exploding, causing panic that was compounded by the unanswered 911 calls. While the DOT workers were unharmed, two civilians suffered minor injuries but refused medical attention from EMS at the scene, according to the FDNY.
There were no injuries to firefighters who responded and brought the fire under control a short while later.
“Gross understaffing has been an ongoing problem at the two command centers, both under the management of the NYPD, that service 911 calls for the entire city,” Howell said. “The centers’ 1,200 operators, staffed predominantly by women with families, are responsible for fielding over 10 million calls per year, with many working 16- to 18-hour shifts, for five or six days straight, to handle the sheer volume of calls. And for those operators being mandated to work overtime, some are running at two to three hours of sleep.”
Howell added that some of the operators who sleep at command centers are currently also contending with a bed bug infestation.
“Working tirelessly under unstable management and with untenable scheduling policies has caused alarming rates of staff turnover and created challenges with recruitment and retention,” Howell continued. “We look forward to meeting with NYPD management on these issues and look forward to a productive dialogue to improve the working conditions at our command centers. Our operators want to be their best for those in crisis, and our first responders — and for our city as a whole.”