BY JOHN PORCELLI
The Fire Dispatch Operations Unit of the Fire Department of New York, part of the Bureau of Communications, is responsible for processing alarms and dispatching fire apparatus throughout the city’s five boroughs. The unit consists of five central offices, one in each borough. The offices are located in parks and are isolated from any other structures, so the facilities can never be directly compromised by a fire or an emergency from another structure. The facilities are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On the morning of September 11, 2001, one supervising fire alarm dispatcher and seven fire alarm dispatchers were on duty in the Manhattan Central Office.
At approximately 0846 hours, the Manhattan Central Office received an urgent radio message indicating that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC) and the fire department had initiated its response.
The alarm receipt dispatchers’ phones began ringing incessantly. At first, the calls were from those in the street or in other buildings who had witnessed the planes crash into the towers. Afterward, however, the calls came from inside the WTC towers. The alarm receipt dispatchers methodically asked the callers for their locations in the building and assured them that the information would be relayed to the fire department’s command post at the scene, which was subsequently accomplished through the Manhattan fire radio dispatcher.
As this was going on, the remainder of the dispatch staff provided the necessary unit assignments for the alarms ordered. Within the first hour, the tour provided unit assignments to the scene that were the equivalent of at least a 17-alarm incident.
Providing a timely response of such extraordinary proportions required the collaborative effort of the five central offices coordinated by the Bureau’s management and senior supervisory personnel. Although each central office is a decentralized borough operation, all central offices routinely interact and form a unified citywide operation at times of critical need.
It was immediately apparent that, in addition to the staggering amount of equipment already at the scene, more resources were needed and also that the resource pool was not infinite. Each multiple alarm transmitted (i.e., second, third, fourth, or fifth) requires at least four engine companies to respond with ladder company and chief response, depending on the alarm. Once an initial alarm escalates to a working fire (i.e., a 10-75), it requires three ladder companies and two battalion chiefs. A second alarm requires two more ladder companies, two more battalion chiefs, and a deputy chief, along with several special units. A third alarm requires one more ladder company and another battalion chief, and fourth and fifth alarms each require another ladder company. The math was staggering.
Once the other central offices realized the incident’s magnitude, each anticipated the need for additional resources. Past experience with large-scale incidents enabled each facility’s supervisors to accurately assess potential needs and take timely action. The other central offices quickly supported Manhattan through unit deployment for rapid response, either sending units directly to the scene or relocating units to areas where fire resources had been redeployed elsewhere or sent to the scene.
Because of the incident’s magnitude and the potential need to provide additional resources, Fire Dispatch response policy was immediately placed in a Fall-Back Step 3 contingency citywide. This pre-established contingency essentially limits the number of units responding to the initial and only report and is implemented during high-activity periods to universally conserve resources. The public safety answering center (PSAC) (responsible for transferring 911 calls to the central offices) transferred Manhattan’s overflow 911 calls to other borough central offices. As the incident progressed, communication links between Manhattan and the other central offices were established and maintained.
Shortly after the initial alarm, the assistant commissioner for communications responded to the site from Headquarters to coordinate and support on-scene communications operations. The deputy director of the Manhattan/Bronx/Queens Command responded to the Manhattan Central Office, and the Brooklyn deputy director of the Brooklyn/Staten Island Command initially responded to the Brooklyn Central Office and then reported to the Manhattan Central Office. On-duty borough supervisors already staffed the Bronx and Brooklyn Central Offices, and the remaining three borough supervisors reported for duty from home as the incident progressed.
The borough supervisors coordinated operational aspects as the deputy directors provided administrative support among and within their respective commands. The director also reported to the Manhattan Central Office, which became the center of operations for ensuring that the Manhattan Central Office Fire Dispatch Operation and the associated citywide Fire Dispatch Operation remained viable.
The Manhattan Central Office was designated as the Fire Dispatch Operations Command Post; all orders, directions, and information originated from there. The command post was continuously in contact with the Fire Operations Center at Headquarters and received timely updates on conditions within the city, especially on issues affecting Fire Operations policy and utility supplies and the transportation infrastructure.
Two critical aspects essential to the central offices’ viability needed immediate attention: facility security and maintaining the facilities’ viability if power or other critical systems failed. Immediately assessing fire unit availability within the city was equally as important.
After verifying that all central office facilities were secured from within and police were posted outside, we assessed unit availability. Hourly Voice Alarm Roll Calls were initiated in each central office to verify unit status. The voice alarm addressing system provides direct independent communication between the individual units in a borough and the borough’s central office fire dispatchers. This mode of communication was preferred to using the telephone or the fire department radio frequency, since both were already seriously overburdened.
Maintaining the central offices’ viability was more complex. Since each central office is a self-sustaining facility housing that borough’s fire alarm plant, quickly and accurately assessing its potential for continuous operation was critically important. Viability also included concern for fire dispatch personnel, especially in view of the operational conditions they were experiencing. We made plans for augmenting and relieving personnel early, addressed priorities, and examined contingency needs.
•Security. The central offices and their personnel were of paramount importance and were secured internally and externally with police presence.
•Personnel levels and relief. Off-duty fire dispatch personnel reported from home; as the tour complements were supplemented, we were able to institute a relief system. Deputy directors were also responsible for ensuring that staffing was adequate and continually maintained at above the normal complement. In some instances, personnel had to remain on continuous duty.
•Regular 911 calls. There weren’t many other incidents of significance that day. Of course, the department was operating at depleted staffing levels around the city, since the staffing priority was the WTC site. Manhattan, however, was like a ghost town.
•Auxiliary power and fuel supplies. We verified that the central offices could withstand a commercial power failure and revert to auxiliary power sources, based on the adequate fuel supplies on hand for each central office’s auxiliary generators. We developed a contingency plan for the possibility of extended auxiliary power use, requiring emergency fuel deliveries.
•Manual operations. Alarms were still being processed normally, using the computer-aided dispatch system (CADS), which remained reliable. The CADS, however, relies on interaction among each of the central offices through a central processor, which in turn depends on a telephone line infrastructure. Therefore, all central offices were advised to be prepared to revert to the manual operations contingency if there was an associated telephone line failure, which is the normal contingency in each central office for a CADS failure. Each central office verified that clerical supplies, such log sheets to record the alarms transmitted, for example, were readily available, if required.
•Alternative radio frequency. The ability to receive and transmit over the fire department radio was assessed and verified in all central offices. Although some receiver sites in lower Manhattan were down because of dependency on telephone lines, the functionality of Manhattan fire radio transmitters was verified and the risk of failure assessed. Failure seemed highly unlikely, given the fact that there is a triple level of redundancy, but a contingency was nevertheless preplanned. If the Manhattan fire frequency could not be used, Manhattan units would switch to the citywide frequency, an additional VHF frequency reserved for special units and higher-level fire department officials. Switching units to this frequency would not present any significant operational problems and could be accomplished from the same facility with minimal impact on operations.
•Building systems. Building systems within each central office, such as air-conditioning, were assessed and maintained to ensure that the CADS-associated equipment and the equipment running the fireboxes were properly cooled and ventilated. An air-conditioning failure in particular would have been critical. It would have affected not only the equipment systems but also fire dispatch personnel, especially because of their increasing workload. System support personnel reported to the facilities as required and remained there on standby. Deputy directors were responsible for ensuring that the building and communications systems of the facilities within their respective commands were continually monitored. Command would coordinate the need and priority for repairs.
•Manual status backup. Borough supervisors ensured that each central office track units on the status board, to seamlessly revert to manual operation if there were problems with the CADS. The status board includes moveable, color-coordinated chips for each borough’s fire units. Additional chips are available for out-of-borough units. Under manual operations, the status board is used with assignment cards to identify the nearest available unit or units to send to an incident.
The Manhattan fire alarm dispatchers had no time to watch the ongoing news reports of the incident. They became painfully aware of the tower collapses, through radio reports from the scene by a fire department marine unit on the Hudson River that was helping in the evacuation effort. The FieldCom unit, which had been deployed on the second alarm, was destroyed. Normally, it would have recorded portable radio conversations at the scene.
Following the collapses, there was a period of eerie silence. To those in the Manhattan Central Office, this silence was frighteningly deafening, implying a staggering loss of life.
The New York City fire alarm dispatchers displayed their abilities in a most exemplary manner at a time of critical need. They stayed at their posts and continued to do the job for which they were trained despite the uncertainty of the events transpiring just a few short miles away. They reported for duty from home and willingly continued on duty. They provided a staggering amount of re-sources to the incident site in a timely manner. They interacted with callers who later became victims of this tragedy, and yet they managed to maintain their composure so they could be there for the next caller.
The three Manhattan alarm receipt dispatchers on duty that morning processed calls that were received literally seconds apart. With controlled brevity, which was neither abrupt nor dismissive, these fire alarm dispatchers attempted to ascertain the caller’s location as quickly as possible and proceed to the next call, thus providing as many callers as possible with an opportunity to hear a dispatcher’s voice.
JOHN PORCELLI is the Fire Department of New York’s director of fire dispatch operations. He is a 33-year veteran of the department and has been director since 1996. He has held supervisory and management positions since 1976.