Opting out: City doesn’t put safety system at intersection of fatal Westport crash

Published: Mar. 7, 2023 at 6:36 PM CST
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - KCTV5 has learned the city has no current plans to install Opticom technology at the intersection of a fatal firetruck crash.

Opticom looks like a small black bird perched on streetlights next to traffic cameras. But, the small device has an important function. It allows first responders to change traffic lights, clearing a path in emergencies.

Opticom was installed in the pumper that crashed at Westport and Broadway, killing 3 people in December of 2021. But, it didn’t matter. There was no receiver installed at the intersection.

A city list revealing the next 29 intersections to receive Opticom reveals Westport and Broadway is not on the list. You can view the list here.

Attorney Kevin Regan represents KCFD pumper driver Dominic Biscari. He provided this statement:

A city spokesperson said intersections were selected by Public Works and will help coordinate fire, streetcar and city drivers and pedestrians.

Opticom is just one reason the firefighter’s union, Local 42, filed a grievance arguing for Opticom technology to be expanded throughout the city:

Documents obtained by KCTV5 reveal Chief Donna Lake responded to the grievance: “The Department does not have the authority to expend un-budgeted amounts on Opticom technology.”

Chief Lake has retired and the grievance has moved along to the city’s HR department.

Right now Opticom technology is being used more for the streetcar and buses than firetrucks. Only 10 firetrucks or pumpers have Opticom technology. The city says Opticom will be added to new trucks and pumpers.

Where is Opticom?

Opticom is currently at 100 intersections across Kansas City. The city provided list of locations that reveals Opticom intersections are clustered around bus and streetcar lines, reflecting a plan to help transportation run smoothly.

Opticom receivers are in the River Market area, where the streetcar travels and up Main Street. Receivers are also along bus routes along Troost and Prospect.

An Opticom receiver is at Main Street and Broadway. It’s so close to the crash that Google Maps suggests a person just walk the 0.3-mile distance to Broadway and Westport, which lacks Opticom technology.

Opticom is found scattered in the Northland but it’s unclear why certain intersections were selected.

Opticom is at a busy intersection at Highway 152 and Flintlock, and also at Flintlock and NE 82nd street near a Sam’s Club. There are no visible bus stops nor firehouses nearby. The purpose is unclear.

KCTV5 is still waiting for answers regarding how much the city has currently spent on Opticom how long it’s been in sporadic use.

Conversely, Overland Park has used Opticom for all firetrucks and ambulances for 30 years.

Crash factors

There are numerous factors contributing to the Westport crash. Video reveals the pumper ran a red light. Court records show the pumper was speeding.

Biscari’s attorney points to the lack of formal driver training for Biscari and says the city failed the young firefighter. Attorney Kevin Regan says the day the pumper crashed was the first time Biscari drove a pumper to an active scene.

Regan also points to communications problems and says that, even though there was a stand-down order, Biscari and others in the truck couldn’t hear it.

The pumper truck crashed into a SUV, killing driver Jennifer San Nicolas and her passenger Michael Elwood. The two worked together at a local restaurant. A pedestrian, Tami Knight, was also killed before the vehicles hit a building. Knight’s boyfriend saw her get hit and tried to rescue her from the rubble.

Last month, Biscari pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree involuntary manslaughter. He received three years of supervised probation and must complete 40 hours of community service. He cannot have a firearm is to have no contact with the victims’ families outside of court proceedings.

Technically, Biscari entered an Alford plea. An Alford plea is a guilty plea where a defendant maintains their innocence but believes the prosecution’s evidence against them would likely result in a guilty verdict.

What’s changed since the crash

Court records show that Biscari ran a red light when he entered the intersection and crashed. At the time, emergency vehicles were not required to stop at right lights. That recently changed. In a directive issued last month, the KCFD’s interim chief changed requirements and mandated all KCFD vehicle operators on an emergency response make a compete stop at red traffic lights before entering the intersection.

The directive goes on to say that the use of lights, sirens and air horns does not automatically give the right of way to emergency vehicles and that KCFD operators must drive defensively, to be prepared for the unexpected or inappropriate actions of others. In addition, it states that emergency vehicles will not exceed the posted speed limit by more than 15 mph.

However, many questions remain about Opticom. The city says the technology will be installed in all new firetruck “apparatus,” but expanding beyond the planned intersections is expensive. Putting a single Opticom unit at an intersection costs $3,500. A four-way intersection is $14,000.

The families of the victims have filed suit and were awarded $32.4 million be an arbitrator. That settlement is still working its way through the courts because it exceeds the cap.

As for Dominic Biscari, a city spokesperson has said that the city will seek to terminate his employment. However, his attorney says he will “fight to help him keep what the City has wrongly taken from him.”