Editor’s Opinion-Blood on their Hands

This originally appeared in the November, 2002 issue of Fire Engineering.

On October 8, New York City Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly tag-teamed the city council at a public safety committee hearing in which they flatly rejected the concept of a unified, integrated incident management system for large-scale incidents in New York City. Designating a single commander in a unified command structure, according to Kelly, is “a danger” and “not appropriate for New York City.”

Kelly said, “I think there is a danger in getting wrapped around the axle in saying who is in charge in a particular event …. [The National Integrated Incident Management System] really is focused on forest fires, it is focused on municipalities that can’t handle an incident by themselves.”

Scoppetta did not disagree, offering a vague pledge of interagency cooperation in lieu of a system that would save lives. Fielding questions from the council as to the command structure at the next catastrophic terrorist incident in New York-a possibility that, in light of the obvious, has surpassed the hypothetical-Scoppetta responded that it depended on which of the two agencies arrived at the scene first.

According to a New York Times report on the hearing, “[A]t a catastrophe like the trade center attack, city officials said, the notion of a single commander would be impossible because of the amount of the resources and manpower needed. It is hard to plan for rapidly changing conditions, they said.”

Since that terrible day last September, cover-your-backside management in New York City has been de rigueur. But this propaganda is stunning in its brazenness. The world knows that the lack of an integrated incident management system factored prominently in the deaths of firefighters and possibly others on 9-11, but that will not deter Kelly and Scoppetta from playing politics with safety.

Kelly, with his 40,000-member army of police, will not submit to the ignominy of playing second fiddle to FDNY under any circumstances, at any incident, whether it’s good for public safety or not. That would reduce his agency’s political bargaining power and possibly expose the police department’s emergency service units for what they are (without disrespect to the good and brave individuals who serve within them): a duplication of rescue services already provided by FDNY. That would be hard to justify as the city braces itself for cuts in essential services.

To that duplicitous end, Kelly has a willing ally in Scoppetta, the former head of the city’s Children’s Services turned fire manager, who is quickly proving that his ceremonial promises to “never forget the fallen brothers” extend only as far as his short political leash.

Witnessing the politicos operate, you’d almost think 9-11 never happened. Little has changed positively for the members of FDNY, who are still reeling from the impact of 9-11 and whose morale cannot be improving under the commissioner’s politics of betrayal. More than a year after the event, the most glaringly obvious deficiencies in the response have not been adequately addressed.

How this can be palatable to a fire department, a fire department leadership, a fire service community, and a concerned citizenry is beyond imagination-unless platitudes at memorial services and firefighter pay increases are enough, in the once glaring but now dimming light of 9-11.

Chief officers who witnessed the deaths of friends and brothers on the worst day in fire service history sit at hearings a year later with their hands in their laps, silent, while another scene in the betrayal plays out. Union officials offer stern warnings to the politicians and then resume the fights they are comfortable fighting-and no more than that. Are we left with no recourse but a few righteous citizen groups who throw themselves against the mountain in a fight the fire service itself should be fighting?

Where is the leadership?

While politicians maneuver their pawns in a deadly game of political chess, the American fire service pays the ultimate price, day in and day out, disaster after disaster. The Twin Towers cast a shadow over the fire service still, and within that shadow, the stakes have been raised exponentially. Those who claim the mantle of leadership must be held accountable and be put on notice: In New York City and every town across America where irresponsible politics dishonors our fallen heroes and the living heroes who carry on in their name, future blood shed is blood on their hands.

Bill Manning

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