Major Storm Response: Rapid Response Vehicle Task Forces

BY ROBERT MAYNES

AT 1745 HOURS ON THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2010, New York City (NYC) was impacted by a severe storm that taxed all of its first responder agencies. Following the storm, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) resources performed beyond expectation in emergency and recovery operations for 14 days. The Juniper Civic Association, located in Middle Village, Queens, ranked NYC government and first responders. Although the overall grade was disappointing, FDNY was awarded the highest grade in large part because of the efficiency of operations and a commitment to resilience to constantly changing challenges. The efficiency of operations was a direct result of the “cando” attitude of the firefighters assigned and the exemplary leadership exhibited by company and chief officers. Tactics were dynamic and included new initiatives and innovative thinking. Difficult decisions were made based on continuous improved situation awareness and changes to tactics that focused on improvement. How was FDNY capable of deploying chainsaw resources on short notice and sustaining an operation resulting in significant accomplishment over 14 operational periods?

On March 13, 2010, NYC was impacted by a severe nor’easter storm later named “The NoName Storm.” First responders in all city agencies were significantly impacted by numerous calls for assistance. FDNY reacted by responding to and operating at numerous incidents, addressing its core competencies. FDNY units rectified lifethreatening tree and electrical hazards, opened streets to emergency traffic, and provided primary access to structures. For multiple days, FDNY supported NYC by using task forces (TFs) that addressed emergency incidents focused primarily on emergency tree removal.

(1)In addition to down trees, FDNY operated at tornado impacted building collapses and structural fires. (Photos 14 by Joe Epstein.)
(2) Down wires increased the complexity of chainsaw operations. Utility company cooperation and coordination are essential for successful operations.
(3-4) Trees supported by wires were encountered frequently. A supported tree and the possible presence of live wires necessitated attention to safety.

CHIEF OF DEPARTMENT PROPOSAL

FDNY Chief of Department Edward Kilduff recognized the potential for similar storms to impact operations in the future. His vision was to initiate a procedure for streamlining the activation of task forces, improving their efficiency with training and additional equipment, and creating a process through which previously identified resources could be activated and deployed.

Since I am the FDNY chief of planning, I was assigned this project. Kilduff’s directions included the following:

  • Research the subject, and draft a document that supports the department’s intent, process, and vision of an acceptable end state following storms, electrical blackouts, and similar incidents.
  • Ensure that the procedures alleviate the pressure on inservice units, resulting in increased availability for complex fires and emergencies. Ideally, the TFs would operate in place of single units and be dispatched by a process independent of the department radio.

RAPID RESPONSE VEHICLE TASK FORCES

The draft document included the details for creating Rapid Response Vehicle (RRV) TFs that would consist of a foundation including two RRVs or one RRV and a brush fire unit. Two firefighters would staff each unit. A company officer would be assigned as TF leader of all units assigned to the individual TF. Each unit is to be supplied with a chain saw, extra chain saw blades and fuel, personal protective equipment, and hand tools. Established TFs can easily expand by adding up to seven units assigned to one TF leader.

(5) The Task Force leader surveys the scene before assigning resources, which were involved in more than 1,000 complex incidents. (Photos 57 courtesy of Deputy Chief Mark Ferran, Division 14, Fire Department of New York.)

An FDNY RRV is a second box trucktype apparatus assigned to Special Operations Command (SOC) Support Ladder Companies (SSL). Individuals assigned to SSLs are trained rescue technicians and Type One hazardous materials technicians. The RRV apparatus is equipped with specialized tools and equipment for supporting complex hazardous materials and technical rescue operations. The RRV apparatus can operate independently by staffing the unit with specially trained firefighters. Each RRV has two chain saws.

(6) The skid steer removed large cut logs to the side of the road to open the road to traffic.

On September 16, the NYC Office of Emergency Management sent a warning that NYC had the potential for severe storms, including a tornado. Ten minutes later, the sky over FDNY headquarters in downtown Brooklyn changed from blue to green. Within five minutes, hail began to strike sideways at a severe rate, first from north to south, immediately followed by the same conditions south to north. The boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens suffered severe damage; the most significant damage was centered in Northern Queens.

(7) The skid steer improved the speed, safety, and efficiency of the chainsaw operations.

Meteorological reports later confirmed that Queens was struck by a macroburst (a large downdraft of air with an outflow diameter of 2.5 miles), at least one microburst (downdraft with a smaller diameter), and a tornado. The twisting damage to large trees confirmed tornadotype winds. Within minutes, Fire Communications offices in the three boroughs were receiving numerous calls for assistance. Units from Manhattan and the Bronx were assigned to support the three impacted boroughs. Kilduff proved prophetic in his prediction of a storm that would necessitate the deployment of TFs focused on chainsaw operations.

Immediately following the impact of the storm, Chief of Operations Robert Sweeney directed me to activate TFs using the process outlined in the draft document. RRV TFs were activated in the three boroughs. The challenge was that the draft document had not been distributed to most units in the field and only a few individuals were familiar with the process and details.

An additional challenge was that the storm struck with virtually no warning, complicating the process of activating assigned individuals and preventing the staging of resources prior to the storm’s impact. Additionally, the identified SOC SSLs were assigned to incidents caused by the storm, resulting in a complex activation procedure. Despite the challenges, the first TF was operational in 60 minutes; within three hours, six TFs were operational. The TFs operated on the borough communications frequency under the supervision of field chief officers for the first operational period ending at 0800 hours on September 17, 2010. Estimates are that the TFs operated at more than 400 incidents, significantly reducing the impact on inservice units.

DAY 2

At 0800 hours, all RRV TFs were recalled to their quarters. Fresh crews replaced the individuals who worked through the night. Chain saws and equipment were repaired and maintained. An incident command post (ICP) was established in the three impacted boroughs; an operations section chief was assigned to each. Queens was identified as the priority; accurate intelligence reported that the borough would be impacted for numerous days addressing FDNY core competencies. A significant number of TFs were required for multiple operational periods. Attempts to augment the RRV TFs with resources from other agencies, including Consolidated Edison utilities and the Parks and Sanitation departments, were unsuccessful. Although operations were performed cooperatively with the identified agencies, the operations were not as efficient as they would have been had the specialized units been embedded in the RRV TFs.

The fire commissioner’s offer to assign the FDNY Incident Management Team (IMT) to support all agencies and resources operating in the three boroughs was declined. Sweeney decided to limit TF operation to daylight hours to ensure the safety of operating personnel. TF operational periods were established, from 06001900 hours. Individual TFs were identified by the designation of one of the assigned RRVs for example, TF 126 consisted of RRV 126 and RRV 121.

The SOC augmented TF operations by assigning the tactical (TAC) units TAC1 and TAC2. SOC TAC units are operated by a SOC firefighter and are assigned to support complex operations with specialized equipment. Staffing on the TAC units was increased from one to two experienced chainsaw operators. Additionally, TAC units were supplied with longer 28inch and 36inch chain saws capable of cutting largerdiameter trees. The firefighters operating in the RRVs were using 24inch chain saws. Each TAC unit was assigned to a RRV unit, resulting in two additional TFs, each capable of completing the complex assignments.

Battalion Chief Stephen Geraghty assigned a loader that can move or lift heavy objects, as a single resource to Queens. It was invaluable in assisting cuts by lifting a heavy tree or pushing large trees to curbside, facilitating the opening of roads. By day’s end, six TFs were operating in Queens, two in Brooklyn, and two in Staten Island. One of the Staten Island TFs later was reassigned to support operations in Queens. Staten Island TF operations culminated on day 2. One TF was assigned in Brooklyn, focusing on assignments in the north end of the borough.

DAYS 3-5

TF 101 operated in Brooklyn’s Division 11 for six hours. At 1200 hours, TF 101 was reassigned to support Queens operations. Six Queens TFs consisting of Divisions 13 and 14 and SOC units operated for five days. After day 5, more than 1,000 FDNY assignments had been successfully completed, exhausting the need for the department’s core competency services.

On September 24, 2011, a Queens’s community group produced a report that graded the FDNY response as an A plus, the highest grade given to any agency. FDNY units operated with an exemplary safety record with zero timelost injuries.

SECOND ROUND

On September 24, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg requested the assistance of numerous agencies, including FDNY, to complete tree, branch, and limb removal in Queens. FDNY was to assist NYC Sanitation by limbing trees and piling the cut branches and limbs for pickup. The intent was to clear all trees and limbs from sidewalk to sidewalk. The limbing of trees and branches across sidewalks is not an FDNY core competency. The RRV TFs were reactivated and assigned geographic zones within the impacted Queens communities to complete limbing operations. The identical TF process and composition that worked days 25 were deployed again. A SOC pickup truck with experienced chainsaw technicians shadowed the six TFs, maintaining equipment and replacing saws when necessary. The assignments were less complex than those of the first five days. FDNY TFs performed beyond expectation by completing an estimated 1,800 assignments while duplicating their perfect safety record of Round One.

On Saturday and Sunday (September 2526), additional units were assigned to augment TFs. For the weekend operational periods, training was suspended. All FDNY units were in service, permitting the assignment ofladder companies to augment TFs with equipment and additional resources. Tower ladders were used for raised cutting operations.

On October 4, an after-action review was conducted at the Queens Borough Command. Participants included supervisors from the three impacted boroughs, including TF leaders. A detailed document that included recommendations for improvement was produced for Sweeney.

LESSONS LEARNED

Personal Protective Equipment

FDNY structural personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed for structural firefighting. Although acceptable, it is not practical for long-duration chain-saw operations. Bunker pants are too heavy, and prolonged use will lead to fatigue and dehydration. Structural firefighting gloves do not provide optimaldexterity. FDNY helmets with the chinstrap are heavy and do not provide optimal eye protection for chain-saw operations. Additionally, the helmets are not equipped with hearing protection. Once the deficiencies were identified, hard hats, goggles, hearing protection, and improved gloves were provided tochain-saw operators.

Based on the intelligence gathered, Firefighter Sean Johnson, FDNY Division of Safety, was assigned to research improved PPE. Johnson is an experienced FDNY IMT member. Currently, he is assigned to a Type One IMT from the Pacific Northwest, where he serves as a public information officer. In this capacity, he has worked on a wildland fireline with elite wildland firefighting crews known as Hot Shots. Hot Shot crews are assigned to the most challenging wildland fire assignments and possess numerous chain saw-specific qualifications. Johnson networked with some of his contacts and provided a list of recommended PPE that met or exceeded National Fire Protection Association guidelines. FDNY purchased PPE for each chain saw assigned to field units. The PPE includes chain saw-specific gloves, chaps for leg protection, and a combination hard hat that includes attached hearing and vision protection. Additionally, operating individuals are directed to wear the long-sleeve work duty shirt buttoned at the wrist.

Communications

Following a severe storm, department radio communications reach full capacity. One of Kilduff’s objectives was to reduce the stress on the department radio as soon as possible. The challenge was to provide an efficient method of communication between the ICP and TF leaders operating in the field. Christopher Ambrose, director of the FDNY Radio Shop, provided 12 department administrative radio system (DARS) radios for TF use. DARS are handheld 400MHZ radios with the capacity to operate intraborough and not interfere with existing frequencies. The DARS radios performed beyond expectations. Each Borough Command has been supplied with 15 DARS radios, intended for TF use. The radios will be programmed to operate on six independent channels, providing the capacity for TF use in each borough and an additional command channel. The radios are to be used for dispatch and field operations communications.

Field Operations

The original procedure provided for the presence of each TF leader and an operations section chief (OSC) at the ICP. The OSC would direct TFs in the field. On Saturday, September 18, 2010, Deputy Chief Mark Ferran, Division 14, was in the field supervising TFs operating in Queens, assisting with prioritization and interagency cooperation. He noted the necessity for assigning a division supervisor to each impacted geographical area. The division supervisor can prioritize and assign appropriate TFs to individual assignments. Additionally, the division supervisor can coordinate with additional cooperating agencies—i.e., Consolidated Edison, NYC Parks, and NYC Sanitation.

As a result of intelligence from the field, a division supervisor will be assigned whenever more than one TF is activated in a single borough. A second division supervisor will be considered when five TFs are activated and whenever eight or more TFs are activated. By using this tactic, span of control will conform to National Incident Management Systems standards. Geographical boundaries combined with the complexity of the incident will delineate multiple divisions. The division supervisor is the immediate supervisor of the TF leaders and reports directly to the operations section chief or a branch director, if the operation’s organization requires the additional level of supervision.

Special Operations Command (SOC)

Individuals and equipment assigned to SOC were integral in the success of the chainsaw TFs. SOC augmented the staffing of TAC 1 and TAC 2 to two firefighters. Each TAC unit was partnered with an SSL RRV, resulting in two vehicles, four firefighters, and a company officer serving as TF leader. The TAC units increased capacity by providing 28 and 36inch chain saws. Additionally, SOC identified individuals with the qualifications needed for operating large chain saws. SOC supplied a skid steer loader to support treeremoval operations in Division 14 starting Saturday, September 18, 2010.

The skid steer proved to be an outstanding resource. It was used to raise large trees to simplify cutting and increase safety. Large trees necessitating complex cuts were moved as one unit to the curb for future cutting by NYC Parks resources, reducing the time and effort expended on a single operation and facilitating the advance of TFs to additional assignments. SOC supplied a pickup truck operated by an experienced chainsaw operator. The truck operated as a single unit supporting all TFs. The truck was equipped with chain saws, chainsaw blades, sharpeners, and additional maintenance supplies. When a TF experienced a malfunctioning tool, the technicians repaired or replaced the tool, facilitating in continuous operation. The technicians were available to assist with complex cuts.

Tower Ladders

At the October 4 afteraction review, field units reported on the success of the tower ladders. Adding them to the TFs improved safety and efficiency. The tower ladder provided a platform above the branch requiring limbing. The tower ladder tactic reduced dangerous kickbacks and exposure to twisting limbs. Future TFs will include tower ladders.

•••

For 14 days in September 2010, the FDNY was confronted with a complex weather incident requiring resilience and innovation. By September 27, the New York City 311 system received more than 9,000 requests for tree incidents. FDNY proved its value for traditional and nontraditional assignments.

ENDNOTE

1. Meteorology & Weather Dictionary, meterology.geographydictionary.org.

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