This piece was adapted from an original investigative report by City Limits Magazine.
Ten years after Sept. 11, when 343 firefighters died at the World Trade Center, is a good time to revisit what that day’s very costly lessons were and whether the New York City Fire Department has learned them.
Death in a disaster usually has multiple causes — Sept. 11 would never have happened if terrorists hadn’t decided to kill Americans, but it might have taken a lower toll on the fire department if problems with communications and personnel had been averted.
But a day when New Yorkers remember FDNY losses is also a time to realize that firefighters risk their life and health on a routine basis, and that potentially deadly fires in basements and attics are as common as terrorist attacks are rare.
Here’s a look at the issues the FDNY encountered on 9/11 and in the decade afterward, and the progress that has – or hasn’t – been made since:
Issue #1 – Jumbled Radio Channels: On Sept. 11 a third to a half of all emergency responders’ radio transmissions were “unreadable or incomplete.” The sheer number of firefighters trying to talk on one channel overloaded the system. Six years later, at the Deutsche Bank fire on Aug. 18, 2007, commanders waited too long to establish a command channel that would have allowed chiefs to separate their strategic discussions from the step-by-step talk on the channel used by rank-and-file firefighters. As a result, Maydays given weren’t heard or acknowledged by other firefighters.
What’s Changed? The FDNY has just started using a system which keeps track of who is issuing a Mayday call. The new system uses existing handheld radios and sends detailed information about the firefighter’s location to the incident commander. But handheld radios still face limitations in high-rise buildings.
Issue #2 – Lack of Communication Between Agencies: Some fire commanders inside the towers on Sept. 11 had little idea what was going on outside, while fire leaders outside the buildings had no inkling of what NYPD helicopters were reporting to police commanders.
What’s Changed? The NYPD and FDNY commanders now have radios they can use to communicate with each other. The question is whether they will use the special cross-agency channels when the time comes. However, calls for a dedicated national first responders network have not yet been answered.
Issue #3 – Disorganized Response: Confronted with an emergency of unprecedented magnitude, FDNY commanders at the World Trade Center called for dozens of fire units. But dispatchers sent more units than were called, fire companies unfamiliar with the WTC reported to the wrong site–forcing still more to be summoned–and some firefighters ascended the stairs with an unclear idea of their mission.
What’s changed: FDNY has revamped its procedure for recalling off-duty firefighters and the department has increased training to prepare members for emergencies involving terrorism. But the Bloomberg administration angered many firefighters when it created an incident command system that would put the police, not firefighters, in charge at some hazardous materials incidents.
Issue #4 – Sub-Par Building Inspections: Problems with building alterations not reflected in floor plans or a lack of inspections have figured into at least 12 of the FDNY’s line-of-duty deaths since 1991. The Manhattan district attorney’s office reported that during the Deutsche Bank fire, FDNY officers failed in their responsibility to inspect the building and figure out how to fight a fire there.
Resolution: The FDNY increased the amount of time each week that fire companies do inspections. However, efforts to prosecute landlords, tenants and architects responsible for dangerous building conditions have failed.
Issue #5 – The Prevalence of the “Can-Do Attitude:” The “Can-Do Attitude” can sometimes lead firefighters to take unnecessary risks. In several firefighter deaths over the years, investigations cited a failure of firefighters to issue Maydays, to leave a dangerous area when their air ran low or to use their protective equipment properly.
What’s Changed? The fire department says it is trying to change firefighters’ approach to risks by making videos of safety tips available to firefighters, scheduling presentations and discussions about safety at firehouses and encouraging FDNY members to participate in the Near Miss program and Pass It On project, in which firefighters share safety information and stories of close calls.