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Old 911 Technology Alleged to have Caused 28 Minute Delay In Deadly NY Fire

On December 23, 2009, Zia Ansari lost his father and two sisters in a fire in Erie County, New York. He is now filing suit against local officials alleging that a delay in dispatching fire apparatus contributed to the outcome.  The fire killed Faaiza Ansari and Saaiba Ansari,  and their father, Mohammad.

At 2:56 am, one of the sisters made a 911 call using a cellphone. However, it appears she was incapacitated and unable to speak. The call lasted 3 1/2 minutes, and all she could muster was a scream, but no explanation of the problem or address.

"All you could hear [on the call] was a woman screaming," Central Police Services Commissioner Peter M. Vito is quoted as saying. "You could not hear a smoke detector. If you had listened to that call, you would have assumed it was a domestic situation."

Authorities initially were only able to pinpoint the location of the call to within a 1,700-meter (one mile) radius. The cell phone used to make the 911 call was an older model. Newer cell phones contain GPS chips that allow 911 dispatchers to quickly pinpoint the location.

Further contributing to the delay in locating the address, the 911 system in place in Erie County did not have the most advanced call locator features, despite the fact that New York charges a 70 cent a month surcharge on cellphone bills for 911. Apparently funds that could have been used to improve the 911 system had been diverted to offset other budget problems.

The dispatchers worked diligently to narrow the location down, but that took precious time. Once the location was narrowed, police were dispatched to the area for reports of a woman screaming. It was only then that the fire was located. According the records, apparatus arrived on scene at 3:24 am, 28 minutes after the call came in.

Earlier this month, Ansari's lawyer obtained a State Supreme Court order directing Erie County, the Town of Cheektowaga, the Village of Depew and two wireless providers to preserve all records related to the December 23, 2009 blaze.

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