BY NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA
On September 11, 2001, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) endured an event simply unprecedented in its history. Forced to contend with a terrorist attack of profound proportions, the courageous, intrepid, and extraordinary men and women of FDNY put their own lives on the line as they bravely fought to save the lives of so many others. Although members of FDNY made incredible sacrifices and sustained terrible losses, we as a department managed to facilitate America’s largest rescue operation amid the worst terrorist attack in history.
Now, one year after that devastating day, FDNY has released a report written by McKinsey & Company that analyzes in detail the shortcomings and possible solutions to its response to the events of September 11. The 169-page report is not intended simply to criticize the department’s response to the scene at the World Trade Center, nor is it designed to uncover and review every single detail of what occurred on that day and the days after.
Instead, it’s an analysis intended to offer understanding into how we did respond to those events and in what ways FDNY could improve and better prepare itself for the multitude of challenges inherent in another catastrophic emergency. That’s why, for the past five months, FDNY officials have worked closely with the McKinsey staff to develop recommendations to change and enhance FDNY’s preparedness.
To be sure, there were a number of things that the members of our department did well in responding to the terrorist attacks. Our firefighters and EMS workers responded as best they could to an unstable and often changing scene, quickly reestablishing incident command posts and leadership after original command posts had been destroyed. Our planning capabilities at the scene, though somewhat compromised at first, eventually became vastly improved as we used the resources of other city, county, state, and federal departments. And most notably, as the McKinsey report notes, our department “facilitated the safe evacuation of more than 25,000 people, the largest rescue operation in United States history.”
Much was done right—or as well as the situation permitted—in our response to the events of September 11, but because of a number of factors, including the sheer and unprecedented magnitude of the event, there were areas where the department’s response faltered. The McKinsey report outlines these areas in detail and includes an extensive discussion of communications, resource management, interagency collaboration, recordkeeping, and protocol issues. Rather than repeat what the report already discusses at length, I’d instead like to focus on how we, as a department, plan to move forward and what has already been done in response to the wealth of information and analysis the McKinsey report provides.
At the administrative level, we have almost doubled the size of our senior staff (from 10 to 18) and have decentralized the command structure by naming five borough commanders, all of whom can be available to the commissioner and the department’s senior staff on a daily basis. We have also improved FDNY communications and collaboration with the police department. This interagency initiative includes the assignment of a fire department battalion chief to One Police Plaza and the assignment of a police captain to our chief of operations; recent programming of all FDNY radio frequencies into police department helicopters to facilitate better and broader coverage of large incidents; and the creation of a high-level interdepartmental committee in which our top three people (the chief of department, the chief of operations, and the chief of department’s executive officer) meet with the top three uniformed members of the police department regularly. In addition, the commissioners of each department now meet regularly.
In operations, we are field-testing new UHF radios that will ensure better communication at the scene and are developing solutions that will ensure radio communications in high-rises, regardless of the state of the building. We are also improving the evacuation plans for high-rises and are working on legislation that will mandate the installation of repeaters in all high-rise buildings. We are in the process of modifying staging protocols, especially at three-alarm fires and greater, as well as the recall procedure, to ensure its effectiveness and flexibility.
And that is only the beginning. Over the coming weeks and months, we intend to follow through on a number of already well-conceived initiatives that will facilitate an effective response to incidents big and small—everything from the creation of highly specialized Incident Management Teams that can manage the response to large and complex situations to the evaluation and deployment of electronic command boards to better manage all scenes. These initiatives, along with stronger and more integrated relationships with other organizations such as the police department, will enable FDNY to respond in the best and most comprehensive way possible to every incident and ultimately save more lives.
The events of September 11 were filled with both tragedy and triumph as we encountered, endured, and eventually overcame one of the most difficult days in our history. It is a date indelibly marked not just by honor, heroism, and sacrifice but by a wealth of knowledge and experience possessed by everyone who responded to the scene—a day of life painfully lost but lessons profoundly learned. We now have the opportunity to make the absolute best of that tragic experience as we move forward, beyond the events of a year ago, and continue to build and enhance the department.
“The Navy regrouped, it fought back. It won the Battle of Midway, and it turned the tide of the battle in the Pacific, after it had been devastated. The New York City Fire Department is being re-formed today; it reminds me of battlefield commissions during a time of war.”—Mayor Rudy Giuliani, at the FDNY promotions ceremonies, “Department Promotes 168 to Rebuild Officer Ranks,” Edward Wyatt, The New York Times, Sept. 17, 2001
“Never have so many been lost at one time. With 11,400 firefighters on the force, one out of every 38 is either dead or missing. Almost every station house has been touched by the tragedy.”—“Firefighters Promoted to Fill Gap,” Matt Crenson, AP national writer, Sept. 16, 2001
NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA is the 31st fire commissioner for the Fire Department of New York, which has more than 16,000 fire, EMS, and civilian personnel. Previously, he served as commissioner for the administration for children’s services.
We can do what the fire service has always done—we can persevere. We can and will do that because that’s what we’ve been trained for and what we believe in. We learn what lessons there are to be learned from this tragedy that may make us, and those we command, safer and more effective in the future. We apply this newfound knowledge purchased at such an awful cost to improve the safety of those we are bound to protect.—Philip C. Stittleburg, chairman, National Volunteer Fire Council
Mayor Giuliani, Commissioner Von Essen, and Chief Nigro each remarked on the incongruence of applauding the advancement of men who are still seeking to rescue those they are replacing, while the city and nation mourn those who have been found. “But I will not apologize for that,” Commissioner Von Essen said, “because we need you to help us attempt to recover the rest of our men who are missing.”—“Department Promotes 168 to Rebuild Officer Ranks,” Edward Wyatt, The New York Times, Sept. 17, 2001