Extension 261

This is a reprint of an article that former Supv. Dispatcher Barry Daskal and I co-wrote for the defunct periodical Fire & Rescue News. It appears in the April/May 1996 issue, volume 1 number 2.

Who They Are

"Fire Department, what is the address of the fire?" In 1994, that phrase was asked 894,0651 times. Before the batteries are turned on, the bunker gear donned, or a wheel is turned, the Fire Department has already responded.

New York City is protected by an elite corps of Fire Alarm Dispatchers who are civilian members of the FDNY. Working 12 hour tours on a 25 group rotating chart (including nights and holidays) they maintain an ever vigilant eye on the City. Dispatchers can't work 24 hour tours as there are no R&R facilities.

Where They Are From

The 180+ members that comprise the dispatch force come from a variety of organizations, but they all have 1 thing in common: a strong communications background. Some have prior experience working in military communications, air traffic control, Fire, or EMS agencies (paid or volunteer). Due to residency requirements and other factors, the job candidate pool has changed.

In the last several years many of the incoming members have crossed over from the NYPD's 911 communication center. Members who came on the job in 1970 (which is when the Department began civilianizing the Communications Bureau) are approaching retirement age, or have sufficient time on the books to take an early buy out. This will result in a rapid turnover of personnel in the coming years.

Their Training

Upon being selected from the civil service list, trainees are given 4 weeks of classroom training at "The Rock" by Supervising Fire Alarm Dispatchers. The curriculum includes dispatch policy, alarm box circuitry, alarm assignments, response policy, manual alarm processing [used when the computer assisted dispatch system (CADS) is offline], and a variety of other topics.

Immediately following classroom instruction is 2 weeks of hands-on computer training in the Staten Island C.O. which has an offline CADS in the basement. After graduating from training, the probys then are detailed to 1 of the 5 central offices (See sidebar). For the first few months probys change work positions every 2 hours and are evaluated daily. With time and experience dispatchers then can move on to other areas in the Communications Bureau such as the Computer Assisted Dispatch Operations Unit (of which Field Comm is a part), Alarm Assignment, or take a promotional exam for Supervising Fire Alarm Dispatcher.

The Flow of an alarm

There are 5 separate and distinct functions preformed by dispatchers in each office. They are: alarm receipt, voice alarm, decision dispatcher, radio in, and radio out.

The Alarm Receipt Dispatchers (ARD's) answer incoming phone calls. There are multiple incoming 911 tielines, direct dial lines, operator assisted lines, and direct dial non-emergency lines. Additionally there are an assortment of tielines from alarm companies, government agencies, transit dispatchers, bridges & tunnels, utility companies, etc. Each ARD has a console that receives calls from ERS boxes. When the ARD takes all the information, the alarm is sent to the Decision Dispatcher (DD).

When the alarm is presented to the DD, the CADS recommends the nearest units. The DD decides if the alarm can be transmitted as the computer suggests, or if it should be changed in any way. When the DD releases the alarm, fire tickets start printing in the firehouses that are to turnout. If a firehouse's printer is off line, a "pick up" notification is sent to the Voice Alarm Dispatcher (VAD).

If a company is available on the air, and their Mobile Data Terminal is offline, a "pick up" notification is sent to the radio. The DD is also responsible for making relocations, and allowing for adequate response coverage. It should be noted that until the arrival of companies at the scene, the dispatcher serves as the incident commander. For this reason, he/she has the ability to assign additional or specialized units at his/her discretion.

The voice alarm is a public address system that connects the central office to every firehouse in the borough. It is the primary backup system to the CADS. The VAD can talk to a single house, multiple houses, a zone of houses, or speak overall. The VAD relays the alarm information to the concerned firehouses. If the CADS is operating normally, and there are no offline printers, the VAD then acts as the primary dispatcher responsible for notifications. For example, all requests for police, EMS, or utility companies, would be performed by him/her. When the CADS is offline, notifications are done by an ARD.

The radio is staffed by 2 dispatchers, Radio In, and Radio Out Dispatchers. The RO does the talking while the RI enters the appropriate signals into the CADS.

As you can see, there's more to "the dispatcher" than the voice on the radio.


One of the more frequently asked questions is, "Why are there 5 separate offices (1 in each borough)? "It was determined early in this century that the vital nature of fire alarm offices required that they be free from disruptions, natural or otherwise. This mandated their isolated, though central, locations."2

Another benefit is that it allows for specialization. For example, a person driving in his car on the Belt Pkwy sees a fire. He calls and says he sees a house burning across the highway from K-Mart. He lives in New Jersey and can't describe the location any better. If that call is answered by a dispatcher who has lived their entire life in the Bronx, he'll have a hard time trying to figure out where the K-Mart is; whereas a Brooklyn native can pinpoint the location.


  1. Source: FDNY Bureau of Information and Computer Services
  2. Source: FDNY public relations handout circa 1990 written by Assistant Commissioner of Communications Steven M. Gregory and then Chief of Dispatch Operations Richard J. Sheirer.