Response By Manhattan Dispatchers
On the day the World Trade Center (WTC) was bombed, the Manhattan Dispatchers Office was involved in its usual routine of transmitting numerous fire alarms. There are more than 1,000 high-rise buildings on the island of Manhattan, and alarms are received from a number of them on a daily basis. Most do not result in fire duty and are classified as emergency unwarranted alarms. However, our office had been unusually quiet for February. In the past 10 days, there had been only one greater alarm in Manhattan. Usually, the Manhattan Dispatchers Office is a “winter borough.” w ith a large percentage of our annual fire activity taking place between Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day. After that, activity falls off sharply as the warm weather approaches.
An hour before the WTC bombing, another dispatcher and 1 had gone out to buy the office’s lunch. On our way back through the snow-covered paths of Central Park, I had remarked that our office had been quiet for the month of February. Shortly thereafter, I ate those words along with my lunch.
The WTC has always been one of our best “customers.” Daily, the Manhattan dispatchers transmit boxes 8084 and 8087, box locations for WTC Tower 1 and Tower 2, respectively, for various types of alarms. Over the years, the WTC had been the scene of several greater-alarm fires and quite a few all-hands (one-alarm working) fires. However, nothing had ever reached the magnitude of what was to happen that afternoon, February 26, 1993.
A DELUGE OF CALLS
All hell broke loose at 1218 hours. All at once, the incoming fire phones started ringing. With only three dispatchers available to answer some 1 5 incoming fire phones all ringing at the same time (five other dispatchers were doing radio and computer duty), our jobs became overwhelming from the beginning. 1 picked up the first call and was told by a woman that an explosion had occurred in the basement of the Vista Hotel on West Street. Based on this information, Box 69 was transmitted. However, Engine 10 and Ladder 10. w hose quarters are directly across the street from the WTC, had heard the explosion and responded as the street rapidly filled up with a very heavy smoke condition.
The Manhattan Dispatchers Office reacted quickly to the unending flood of incoming fire calls and urgent messages received from the field. The foremost thing for a fire dispatcher to remember is to keep cool and set out to deal calmly with the unfolding major emergency. For the first 10 minutes after the explosion, I continued to answer the incoming phone calls. After several minutes, it became clear that the 22-story Vista Hotel, known as 3 World Trade Center. was not the only building filling up with heavy smoke. Almost immediately after transmitting the initial alarm, we began to receive frantic calls from the two 110-story Twin lowers, known as 1 World Trade Center (Lower 1 ) and 2 World Trade Center (Tower 2).
In my 26 years as a Manhattan fire alarm dispatcher, I had never beforespoken with so many people from one incident who thought they were going to die. Their dire situation was magnified by the fact that the explosion had knocked out all power to the huge complex. Without lights, elevators, or fire alarm communications, more than 100,000 workers and visitors were convinced that the Twin Towers would become their “ Twin Tombs.” Many of the hundreds of telephone calls our office received were from 1 WTC where the explosion had blown down walls, allow ing heavy smoke from the Vista Hotel’s basement to quickly enter the tower’s stairwells and elevator shafts, moving up in a chimney-like effect.
Our main mission was to provide the units rapidly being ordered by the chief officers at the scene w hile continuing to answer the tidal wave of frantic calls from those trapped in the towers. By 1254 hours, Box 69 had escalated to a fifth alarm. Box 808 t. transmitted at 1229 to cover 1 WTC, escalated to a third alarm by 1252 hours.
The numerous reports we were receiving of people trapped in 2 WTC were at first merged with the 1 WTC operations. However, as the 2 WTC reports became more numerous, we decided to make it a separate incident, transmitting Box 8087 for 2 WTC. Although there were serious problems within 2 WTC, they were not as severe as those in 1 WTC; Tower 2 was located farther away from ground zero. About this time, the chief of department requested 40 additional engine and ladder companies to cover 1 WTC. We were ordered to obtain the additional units from Brooklyn.
ASSIGNMENT, DISPATCH, ROUTING CALLS
By this time 1 had switched positions in the office and was controlling the actual assignment and dispatch of companies to the various boxes. I requested the Brooklyn Dispatchers Office to transmit a third alarm from one of its box locations not too far away and then direct the units to respond to the WTC. This is a borough call (the name is a relic of the old “bell telegraph” dispatch system). 1 also w^as ordered to transmit a second alarm from a box within Manhattan and send those units to the WTC. 1 complied by transmitting Box 100 at the Staten Island Fern Terminal. This is known as a simultaneous call, after the old bell system.
Our office had reached peak operational levels. All eight dispatchers on duty had their hands full. We had extended ourselves to the maximum. At no point, however, did we lose control of the situation. We complied with hundreds of requests from the field. The three dispatchers receiving incoming calls answered hundreds of calls from people trapped on various floors of the towers: “400 people trapped on the 90th floor,” “300 people trapped on the 75th fltxir,” and so on were common communications. We received numerous reports of locations of pregnant women, people with heart problems, and so forth. Such calls were continuous for at least 2⅛ hours.
It should be noted that when all 15 incoming fire phone lines are busy, additional calls are rerouted to other borough fire dispatch offices. Those offices enter the information received into the city’s fire dispatch computer for subsequent dispatch by Manhattan dispatchers (the dispatch messages show up on Manhattan Dispatchers’ computers).
FDNY operates a Field Communications Unit (FieldCom) to coordinate communications at major incidents. Manned by a fire alarm dispatcher and a fire officer, the unit responded to the WTC incident. The Manhattan Dispatchers Office relayed numerous trapped occupant reports through the FieldCom Unit, which then were hand-carried to the FDNY command post. FDNY dispatchers first transmitted these reports via radio and later to computer mobile display terminals in the FieldCom Unit.
However, in the middle of this major disaster, our computer alarm dispatch started to fail, creating a major problem for us. It should be noted that before the explosion, a repairman had been in our office attempting to repair a part of the fire dispatch computer. As the WTC bombing reached the 16-alarm level and hundreds of telephone calls and orders from the field were entered into the computer, it simply could not handle the volume.
We took a big gamble and decided to stay with the computer rather than switch to the old manual dispatch system. We weighed the decision carefully. We knew we had sent a small army of firefighters to the scene and that, therefore, the fire should be controlled in a short time. We also felt that enough time had passed to allow’ firefighters to reach the upper floors, which would stop the high rate of telephone calls. Also, several dispatchers had been called in from home on overtime and were arriving at the office to give us a hand. In addition, the president of the dispatchers union had arrived and was setting up the manual chip board, in case the computer crashed.
In addition to land units, FDNY’s fireboats were dispatched to the incident. A member on one of the boats that responded on the second alarm for Box 69 from the North River berth reported he could see trapped WTC occupants many floors up, waving bright red drapes to get attention. At the same moment the fireboat was transmitting his message, I looked up and saw these same trapped office workers on live TV coverage from the scene. This gave all of us in the Manhattan Dispatchers Office a good visual idea of what was going on. Live shots also were being shown of WTC office workers fleeing the towers, most of them with faces blackened from the heavy smoke produced by the burning automobiles in the Vista Hotel’s basement garage.
As the incident entered its third hour, the overall situation began to improve. Extra dispatchers were on hand, the dispatch computer was now holding its own, and we felt the worst had past. However, we still were receiving reports of many people trapped on the very high floors, which we continued to pass on to the command post. Dispatchers had constantly maintained coverage for the rest of Manhattan through requests to the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. These other boroughs dispatched fire companies to relocate into empty Manhattan fire stations.
Two chief dispatchers arrived in the office to assume command and also give us a hand in more routine matters. As 1500 hours approached, we started to feel that the situation was becoming more stable. We also felt a great sense of accomplishment—we had weathered a very serious situation. Although six persons died below grade as a direct result of the explosion, not one life was lost above the lobby floor.
In reviewing the entire operation during subsequent tours of duty, the Manhattan Dispatchers Office came to the following conclusions and lessons learned.
- On the day of the WTC explosion, the Manhattan Central Office was staffed with a supervising dispatcher and seven dispatchers —the minimum staffing level adequate to handle most incidents that occur. However, when an emergency like this one does strike, it is extremely important to order additional dispatchers and supervisors into the office to assist with the actual dispatch operation and to provide relief for the initial dispatch
- group, as traditionally has been done in the cases of civil disturbances, major storms, and extremely heavy fire periods, and which was done for the WTC incident.
- The Computer Assist Dispatch System has been in use by FDNY since 1977, when it was installed in the Brooklyn Dispatch Office. Several years later, it was installed in the Manhattan office. It is a first-class aid to assisting the dispatching force in transmitting fire alarms. However, it does have its limitations during a
- major emergency. This raises the question, In the middle of a major fire emergency, do you switch to the manual mode? If you do, you gain some control of the situation. However, the manual system works at a slower rate; it takes some time to set everything up and, in reality, not everyone is proficient in its operation, as it is a difficult system to learn.
In the case of the WTC incident, staying on a computer system that could possibly crash caused some anxious moments. One major concern was that the computer would lose some of its memory. One of the main reasons we stayed with the computer was that our supervisors wanted a computer record of all activity at the WTC.
Those of us who “stood on the bridge” the day the WTC was bombed all feel we did our best at a time when our office turned into a madhouse within minutes of 1218 hours. I have worked for some other major incidents, including the civil disturbance and firestorm after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, and the night the city went totally dark in 1977, triggering large-scale fire activity and looting. Nothing, however, compares with working during the 16-alarm WTC bombing.*