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Lancaster dispatch fire brings attention on safety protocol and staff needs
By Lee Chowaniec
Sep 19, 2007, 22:38
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Safety Dispatcher Sharon Cohan addressed the Lancaster Town Board Monday evening on the need for fire safety directions in lieu of last week’s fire at the department and need to increase the number of dispatchers to accommodate the workload brought on by the police merger in 2003.

"Before I get into the fire, I want to touch on the following," said Cohan.

“I work with ten other highly skilled, highly trained dispatchers at the communication center at the town of Lancaster police department, at 525 Pavement Road. We are the first people on the scene of every emergency, whether it be a fire, an accident, a burglary, a larceny, it comes to the dispatch department first.”

Cohan declared that the dispatch department was understaffed. She requested the town budget for the addition of three dispatch positions over the next three years.

According to Cohan, pre-merger of the town and village police forces the town had a seven member dispatch staff, manning one 24/7 operation. After consolidation of the town and village police departments, eleven dispatch members were to be assigned to man two 24/7- dispatch operations.

Four dispatchers were supposed to come from the village after merger. One opted out and there are only ten positions. “We are there every day of the year on the job, we have families as well,” said Cohan. So, we started in 2003 understaffed at ten and lost another one to retirement. We are now working nine where we should have eleven to meet what was determined in 2003.”

“In March of 2005, we hired one dispatcher. That took us to ten, where we started in 2003. In September 2003 (?) we hired another one which took us to the status quo of 2003, of eleven. We have had only two public safety dispatchers appointed in the last 4-1/2 years.”

Cohan declared that with the police department increasing its size, “where you now have 30 officers, 5 detectives, two School Resource Officers (SRO’s), 5 Lieutenants, 2 Captains and a police chief, there is more volume coming into our department.”

“The police staff introduces more work and we have to know what we are doing and have the capacity to answer the increased workload. We have minimum staffing and are working overtime to keep up. That’s why we are requesting more staffing. Please consider that in the upcoming budget.”

Giza replied, “The chief has been expanding the police department. If he needed more dispatchers, he should have told us that.”

“Well, I just did responded Cohan.” “We need them!”

Disturbed over lack of fire protection protocol

Cohan informed the board that the real reason for her appearance was because of the fire that occurred at the police center at 2:57 a.m. Friday morning.

At this point Supervisor Robert Giza asked Chan why she was using such an angry tone. “Why do you seem to be mad at us?”

“I am angry for several reasons,” replied Cohan. “The dispatch center has a very ill-ventilated area. Why would you leave two dispatchers in a burning building for two and one-half hours, send them to the hospital, call in two more dispatchers in that same burning building, send them to the hospital four hours later, and call in two more (dispatchers)?”

Cohan declared that she was not there to pint fingers of blame, but that they worked in an old building with poor plumbing; noxious sewer gases from the plumbing in the cells; the undersized locker room is the lunch room, with no table available to sit down and have a cup of coffee; poor heating; poor ventilation; with electrical wiring that would not pass code in any other building.

Cohan claimed that the fire situation was comedy of errors. “We have resources we could have used, a perfectly good office of Emergency Management (OEM) building across the street.”

Cohan said that had she been there, she would have directed that the dispatchers grab a portable and/or cell phone because we have radios that Cheektowaga is our back up. Cheektowaga could have talked to all our fire trucks. 911 could have been handled by the county. If the phone rang three times and no one answered by then, Cheektowaga is our back up.

“We are all on the red alert system, said Cohan. Within two hours we could have gone to the OEM building and notified every single person…”

Giza interjected and asked Cohan, “Why didn’t you call them? Was I there? Did you tell the chief this? Why didn’t the person at the scene that was in charge make the call?”

Council Member Dan Amatura interjected that the meeting’s intent was not to point fingers of blame, but to set up a program that would appropriately address such crises in the future. We need protocol to rectify such future situations. I have spoken to OEM manager Bob McPeak to set some program in place. Cohan agreed such protocol was needed. “Use this incident as a wake-up call,” said Cohan.

“What upsets me as that no one told the dispatchers top leave a burning building’” added Cohan. “A burning building that very well has toxic materials in it.”

Town Attorney Richard Sherwood asked why the dispatchers didn’t leave the building.
You said there was back up.” “No one told them they had to stay! You said there was back up.”

“Because they are dedicated,” said Cohan. “We need to be better prepared in the future.”

“The town board does not direct how a fire response is made,” retorted Sherwood.

Giza added that Cohan should talk to her coworkers and find out why they did not leave the building, especially considering there were backup procedures in place to prevent compromising public safety. “Actually the building wasn’t burning,” said Giza. “There were some wires on fire and some smoke.”

At that time OEM manager McPeak interjected that although he commended the dispatchers for their dedication, common sense was overshadowed by their determination to have good communications. "Good communications because they are always criticized for not doing one thing or another."

“Lets use this as a learning curve,” said McPeak. According to McPeak, there was a long delay in notifying town officials and department heads. There should be a list, a communications vehicle to help the dispatchers in the future so they can get out ASAP. "And, they should be provided with adequate back up systems."

McPeak informed the board that not all buildings have an alarm system. They need to have alarms that are wired to a central communication system. There should also be evacuation procedures in place, practice runs and dedicated captains to count heads and ensure everyone has evacuated the building. “I have not seen an evacuation plan for any building, any department in town.”

“We need the support of the town board to get it done,” said McPeak.

“I would feel more comfortable if you (McPeak) worked with Ms. Cohan to get it done,” interjected Council Member Donna Stempniak.

“Nothing gets done without the approval of the town board,” echoed Cohan.

McPeak will take charge in setting up an evacuation program that involve all departments within a building, each departments responsibility should there be a crisis, an order of evacuation if and when needed and a meeting place where all individuals can be accounted for.

“That’s why I talked with Supervisor Giza today and invited Sheri (Cohan) to the work session, we need a sense of protocol,” Amatura restated. “That’s what I thought we were here to discuss tonight.”

McPeak interjected, “We need a directive by the town board to the department heads that we need this protocol, and we (OEM) would be willing to work with them.”

Council Member Ron Ruffino stated that not only was such a plan needed, but that there had to be exercises in place to test its adequacy and proficiency.

McPeak added that such program would detail what alternatives would be utilized if a fire did happen in a building – where departments, records, etc. could be relocated. “You need something in writing. This was a wake up call. Lets look at it as an opportunity to make something good out of something bad.”

McPeak was delegated to work with the department heads to set up evacuation, fire alert, communication systems, and etc., procedures.

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