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NYC civilian fire fatalities drop to lowest level

Fewer civilians died by fire last year in New York City than at any time in the past 90 years, officials announced.

In a news conference at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and newly appointed Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano attributed the drop in fatalities to a new unified emergency call-taking procedure and other changes in dispatching methods.

Civilian fire fatalities dropped to 73 in 2009, down from 86 in 2008, Bloomberg said. The 2009 figure represents the lowest fatality level in city history since accurate record-keeping was instituted in 1916, he said.

City officials said the previous low occurred in 1919, when 77 deaths occurred.

"In terms of public safety, 2009 was a year for the history books," Bloomberg said in a prepared statement. "The Fire Department's performance in reducing fire fatalities and saving lives by getting to fires faster than ever, when combined with the extraordinary successes achieved by the NYPD in driving down crime to record lows, are the result of hard work, innovation and use of data to achieve results."

Response time for the FDNY also dropped to new low levels. For structural fires, response time in 2009 was 4:02, lower than the record of 4:08 in 1994, Bloomberg said. The 2009 time was also lower than the previous five-year average of 4:25, he said.

Bloomberg credited the June 2008 introduction of an expedited dispatch procedure as a key reason for the faster response time. Under the revised response protocol, basic information about an emergency such as the address is given to responding units, a city spokesman explained. More information about the nature of the fire is then relayed to firefighters while they are en route, the official said.

The drop in fire fatalities and the faster response times were also affected by a "unified call-taking" 911 system, which essentially allows callers to make one call - instead of two as previously required - to report a fire, city officials said.

The unified call-taking system has been criticized by the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the firefighters union. The union said the unified system was "fatally flawed," causing FDNY units to be dispatched to wrong addresses on numerous occasions.

A spokesman for the union said the union wouldn't comment Monday about the latest fatality and response time statistics.

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