FDNY Fire Operations response on September 11


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FDNY Fire Operations response on September 11
This section of our report describes the major aspects of the response of FDNY Fire Operations to the World Trade Center attack. It has four parts. The first describes how FDNY commanders exercised overall command and control of fire operations at the scene. The second deals more specifically with how those commanders deployed and managed personnel and resources. The third describes how the Fire Department handled planning of its resource requirements on September 11 and afterwards, and how the Fire Department managed logistics (i.e., deployment of supplies and equipment). The fourth discusses the challenges faced by the Department as it sought to support and counsel its members and their families in the aftermath of September 11.
COMMAND, CONTROL AND COMMUNICATIONS
The FDNY’s response to the attacks of September 11 began at 8:46 a.m., the moment that American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into Tower 1 of the World Trade Center (WTC 1).
Command is established
The Battalion Chief assigned to Battalion 1 (B1)10 witnessed the impact of the plane from the corner of Church and Lispenard Streets. He immediately signaled a second alarm11 and proceeded to the World Trade Center. En route, B1 requested additional resources by transmitting a third alarm at 8:48 a.m.
B1 informed the FDNY Communications Office (Dispatch) that the corner of West and Vesey Streets, one block north of WTC 1, would be the designated staging area for third alarm units.12 B1 arrived at WTC 1 at approximately 8:50 a.m. As the first responding chief, he established the Incident Command Post
10 A battalion is a collection of FDNY resources or “units” (e.g., engine and ladder companies) responsible for a geographical area of the city. Four to five firefighters and one officer generally comprise a unit. Five to eight units comprise a battalion. Four to seven battalions comprise a division. The World Trade Center was located in Battalion 1’s response area within Division 1. “B1” and similar codes used in this document are radio designations.
11 Alarms correspond to the number and type of units deployed to an incident. A second alarm in a high-rise building typically deploys 19 pieces of apparatus and 11 chiefs. Third, fourth and fifth alarms deploy additional resources.
12 A staging area is a resource management area in close proximity to an incident. It is standard FDNY procedure to stage units assigned to third alarms and above. Units that are directed to stage are expected to respond to the staging area and await further deployment instructions.
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(ICP) in the lobby, per FDNY’s high-rise firefighting procedures.13 In approximately 10 minutes, from 8:50 a.m. to about 9:00 a.m., Incident Command was established and passed (according to protocol) from B1 to the First Division Chief (D1) to the Citywide Tour Commander 4D (CWTC-4D)14 and finally to the Chief of Department (COD) (see Exhibit 2 for a command and control timeline).
At approximately 9:00 a.m., the Incident Commander moved the Incident Command Post from the lobby of WTC 1 to the far side of West Street (an eightlane highway) opposite WTC 1, because of the increasing risk from falling debris within and around the lobby and other safety concerns. Chief officers considered a limited, localized collapse of the towers possible, but did not think that they would collapse entirely. The command post in the lobby of WTC 1 became the Operations Post15 (OP-1) for WTC 1, reporting to the ICP. This Operations Post was managed by senior chiefs and was responsible for all operations in WTC 1, including the assignment of units to search and rescue operations in that building. It was necessary for the chiefs to remain in the lobby so they would have direct access to important building systems, such as controls for alarms, elevators, and communications systems.
The Field Communications Unit (Field Com) set up operations at the West Street ICP at approximately 9:15 a.m., in accordance with protocols. This unit was responsible for tracking the location and job assignment of all resources at the incident (e.g., which units responded to which alarms and which units were assigned to each tower). Field Com was also responsible for coordinating the assignment of additional units to the incident with Dispatch, upon request by the Incident Commander.
Our interviews with the chief officers in charge of the Operations Post in WTC 1 indicated that, early in the response, they decided that operations in WTC 1 should focus on search and rescue of injured and trapped civilians. The chiefs dispatched units from the lobby of WTC 1 to higher floors in two situations:
In response to specific distress calls (e.g., people stranded in elevators, trapped in rooms, or hurt who would either call 911 or contact OP-1 directly through WTC 1’s internal telephone system).
To ensure that floors below the fire had been totally evacuated.
13 An Incident Command Post is the location from which all aspects of an incident, including operations, logistics, and planning are managed.
14 The Citywide Tour Commander is a staff chief responsible for FDNY operations throughout the city. One citywide tour commander is on duty at all times. On September 11, seven citywide tour commanders were designated CWTC-4A through H, except for the designation CWTC-4F, which was unused.
15 An Operations Post is where operations are led for one component of the incident.
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Units arriving at the lobby of WTC 1 checked in with the chief officers at the Operations Post for their assignments. Chief officers sent these units up into the building in a controlled, orderly way.
Before 9:00 a.m., D1 and B1 directed Port Authority personnel to evacuate surrounding buildings as a precautionary measure.
Plane hits WTC 2
At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 hit World Trade Center Tower 2 (WTC 2). Resources were immediately deployed to WTC 2 from the West and Vesey staging area and WTC 1. CWTC-4B, in coordination with the Incident Commander and chiefs in command of OP-1, established an additional Operations Post in the lobby of WTC 2 (OP-2), reporting to the Incident Commander. As at WTC 1, we believe that chiefs sent units arriving at WTC 2 up into the building in a controlled, orderly way.
Chiefs designate staging areas
As the mobilization escalated, senior chiefs established staging areas near the World Trade Center. However, as units approached, many failed to report to these areas and instead proceeded directly to the tower lobbies or to other parts of the incident area (see Exhibit 3 for a staging timeline).
For instance, early in the response B1 designated the corner of West and Vesey Streets as the staging area for third alarm units. Starting at 8:53 a.m., Dispatch sent radio instructions to these units to stage at West and Vesey. At 8:57 a.m., the Chief of Department, while still en route to the incident, requested the assignment of a staging chief to coordinate activities at West and Vesey. He then issued a fifth alarm for WTC 1 and responding units were instructed to report to this staging area.
At 9:12 a.m., the Chief of Department issued a fifth alarm for WTC 2 and at approximately 9:16 a.m., the corner of West and Albany Streets (two blocks south of the World Trade Center) was designated as the staging area for WTC 2. All units responding to that fifth alarm were directed by Dispatch to stage there. Citywide Tour Commander CWTC 4E assumed command of that area as the staging chief.
However, it is unclear whether all units received Dispatch’s radio transmissions instructing them to stage because the units were not explicitly asked to confirm receipt of the transmission and they did not acknowledge the messages. Some
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units responding to WTC 2 from Brooklyn may have been in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, out of the reach of the Dispatch’s radio communication and Mobile Data Terminal16 (MDT) systems, when the staging directions were transmitted.
As units converged on the scene and civilians were evacuated, there was traffic congestion and gridlock in the area. Several units traveling from the north had difficulty getting to their staging area south of the towers. Our interviews and reviews of dispatch tapes suggest that several responding units were unable to reach their staging areas with their apparatus and therefore proceeded on foot directly to the tower lobbies.
Among those units that failed to report to the West and Albany staging area were those responding to the fifth alarm for WTC 2. Interviews indicated that several units (probably including those responding to this fifth alarm) traveled past this staging area on their apparatus. After waiting approximately 23 minutes for adequate resources to arrive at the West and Albany staging area, CWTC-4E issued an additional second alarm for WTC 2. Units responding to this additional second alarm did report to the staging area.
At 9:47 a.m., the Incident Commander requested additional resources and issued a third fifth alarm for the incident. Units were directed to respond to the West and Vesey staging area.
The lack of staging had several effects.
Chief officers on the scene, the Field Communications Unit, and Dispatch could not accurately track the whereabouts of all units.
Units that failed to stage may have not received necessary information and orientation before going into the towers. As a result, several companies that were not from surrounding battalions had problems differentiating WTC 1 from WTC 2. Interviews with chief officers in command of the WTC 1 Operations Post indicated that several units that arrived there asked for confirmation of whether they were in the lobby of WTC 1 or WTC 2.
If units had staged according to protocol, other units that were dispatched to the WTC might have been kept instead in the citywide pool. For example, the additional second alarm issued by CWTC-4E led to the dispatch of eight additional units to the incident.
16 A Mobile Data Terminal is a computer screen and printer in an apparatus (e.g., engine or ladder truck) that can receive and send data such as deployment instructions and confirmations.
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Communications limitations emerge
A number of communications difficulties hindered FDNY chief officers as they coordinated the response. For instance, problems with radio communications left the chief officers in the lobby of WTC 1, and probably those in WTC 2, with little reliable information on the progress or status of many of the units they had sent up into the buildings. The portable radios that were used by the FDNY on September 11 do not work reliably in high-rise buildings without having their signals amplified and rebroadcast by a repeater system. The World Trade Center had such a system, but chief officers deemed it inoperable early in the response after they tested it in the lobby of WTC 1. With the repeater malfunctioning, the chiefs in the lobby of WTC 1 would not have been able to communicate with any units whose radios were tuned to the repeater channel, even if such units were just a few feet away from them. On the other hand, the command and tactical channels on these radios do support some, albeit unreliable, communications in high rises. Therefore, the chiefs decided to use their command and tactical channels17 for operations in WTC 1.
Radio communications between chief officers in the lobby of WTC 1 and the units they sent in the building were sporadic. The chiefs were able to get through to some units sometimes, but not others. Some units acknowledged receiving radio communications some times, but not others. This left the chiefs not knowing whether their messages failed to get through, whether the units failed to acknowledge because they were busy with rescue operations, or whether the units did acknowledge, but the acknowledgement did not get through. Because information about civilians in distress continued to reach the Operations Post in the lobby, the chief officers decided to continue their attempts to evacuate and rescue civilians, despite the communications difficulties. We believe that the chiefs and units in WTC 2 faced similar communications problems.
In attempts to improve their communications, chief officers tried to deploy the Department’s mobile repeater and give units “standpipe phones” that could be connected to boxes along the building’s standpipe system. These were all ineffective. Chief officers in WTC 1 had some success in getting information to units in high floors by instructing units in lower floors to relay messages to them.
When WTC 2 was hit, several chiefs who were in WTC 1 proceeded to that building, but first they coordinated with other chiefs the selection of command and tactical channels for the different towers.
17 Tactical radio channels are used for on-scene communications among chiefs and the units they command. Chiefs provide directions to units on this channel while units provide status reports to the chiefs and each other and request assistance. Command channels are used by chiefs at an incident to communicate with each other.
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Chief officers in the lobbies of both towers also had very little reliable information about what was happening outside the towers, beyond their communications with the ICP. They had no reliable sources of intelligence and had no external information about the overall status of the incident area, the condition of the towers or the progression of the fires. For example, they had no access to television reports or reports from an NYPD helicopter that was hovering above the towers. This lack of information hindered their ability to evaluate the overall situation.
Threat of third plane is announced
At approximately 9:30 a.m., personnel in the lobby of WTC 1 heard an unconfirmed report of a threat from a third plane. Due to this announcement and communications problems that were constraining command and control capabilities, CWTC-4D broadcast over the FDNY tactical radio channel assigned to WTC 1 an order to all FDNY members to come down to the lobby of WTC 1. There was no acknowledgement by officers or firefighters of the order.
Shortly after the order was given, chief officers in the lobby learned that the threat of a third plane was false. At this point, the chiefs continued the search and rescue operations.
Most of FDNY’s senior leadership responds to scene
As the mobilization of personnel and resources grew, most of the senior uniformed and civilian leadership of the FDNY responded to the scene, including all senior Fire and EMS operations officers. Out of 32 staff chiefs and members of the executive staff,18 26 responded to the incident area, 22 of which arrived prior to the first collapse. Members of the executive staff who responded prior to the first collapse included the Fire Commissioner, Chief of Department, Chiefs of Fire and EMS Operations, and seven out of nine staff chiefs. The remaining two staff chiefs responded after the collapse of the towers.
The experience and leadership of these senior chiefs proved crucial to re-establishing command and control after the towers collapsed. However, had some senior officers remained at a separate, protected location with the appropriate communications infrastructure, they may have been better able to support maintenance or re-establishment of incident command and control. Or they could have improved management of the Department’s resource pool to
18 The 32-member executive staff includes the civilian fire commissioners who are responsible for bureaus within the Department, along with the Chief of Department, Chief of Operations, the Chief Fire Marshall and the nine staff chiefs. Staff chiefs include the seven citywide tour commanders, the Chief of Safety, and the Chief of Fire Prevention.
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ensure that all appropriate resources were sent to the scene, while at the same time fully protecting the rest of the city in case of another major incident.
Many of the senior civilian FDNY staff members who responded to the scene had no role or responsibility in the response.
WTC 2 collapse destroys Command Post
The collapse of WTC 2 at 9:59 a.m. killed many civilians and first responders and destroyed the Incident Command Post on West Street and the Field Communications Unit. The collapse weakened the command and control structure as Fire and EMS chiefs at the ICP, including the Incident Commander, sought shelter in nearby structures.
However at OP-1, in the lobby of WTC 1, the collapse of WTC 2 was not immediately apparent. Our interviews indicate that many believed that a partial collapse within the lobby of WTC 1 had occurred or that the elevators or other debris had fallen into the lobby of WTC 1. The lobby of WTC 1 filled with blinding dust and debris and became untenable. In almost complete darkness, firefighters, officers, chiefs and civilians were forced to leave the lobby of WTC 1. Prior to searching for an exit for himself, B1 issued an order at approximately 10:00 a.m. over the portable (handie talkie) radio for all FDNY members to evacuate WTC 1.
Many firefighters and officers operating in WTC 1 informed us that they were unaware that WTC 2 had collapsed when they heard the order to evacuate. Also, firefighters and officers on upper floors never heard the evacuation order. In some cases, these firefighters were told by other firefighters that the evacuation order had been issued.
WTC 1 collapse impairs incident command
After the collapse of WTC 2, the Incident Commander and personnel operating at the Incident Command Post moved north on West Street toward Chambers Street. However, the Incident Commander along with other members of the command and executive staff returned to the incident area to assess the situation and were killed at 10:29 a.m. when WTC 1 collapsed.
Between 10:29 a.m. and 11:28 a.m., incident command and control was seriously impaired. Several factors complicated efforts to re-establish it. Dispatch and the staff chiefs were unable to determine which chiefs had survived the collapses, where they were, what resources were available in different sectors of the incident area, if there was an ICP, and who the Incident Commander was. In addition, radio communications were difficult due to the large numbers of transmissions, which included attempts to locate personnel, mayday calls and company units seeking orders. Several chief officers, including Division Chief 6 (D6), the Chief
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of Fire Prevention, CWTC-4A and CWTC-4C, took the initiative to re-establish the incident command and control structure. This process led to the emergence of multiple, sometimes co-existing ICPs (see Exhibit 4).
Incident command reestablished
At the request of Dispatch at approximately 11:28 a.m., a single ICP was designated at West and Chambers when CWTC-4C assumed Incident Command (see Exhibit 5 for sample exchanges between Dispatch and responding chiefs and for sample, illustrative quotes from interviews regarding the re-establishment of command).
The ICP remained at West and Chambers until approximately 6:00 p.m. and was then moved to West and Vesey, closer to the incident area, where it remained until the morning of September 15. At that time, the ICP was relocated to Engine 10 and Ladder 10’s quarters at 124 Liberty Street. On Monday, September 17, the ICP was moved to larger premises at Battalion 1, Engine 7 and Ladder 1’s quarters at 100 Duane Street.
RESOURCE DEPLOYMENT AND MANAGEMENT
The response of FDNY Fire Operations personnel to the World Trade Center on September 11 was unprecedented in scale and scope. More than 200 Fire units responded, approximately half of all units in the city. In the first three hours alone, 121 engine companies, 62 ladder companies, and 27 fire chief officers were assigned to the incident.19 This corresponds to 61 percent of engine companies, 43 percent of ladder companies, and 47 percent of chief officers (see Exhibit 6 for the resource deployment timeline and Exhibits 7 and 8 for apparatus and chief deployment).
Much of this massive response was ordered by chief officers as they dealt with an increasingly dangerous and challenging situation. However, some of the response occurred outside regular command procedures. The size of the response taxed the FDNY’s efforts to effectively deploy and manage its personnel and resources.
Units ask to be dispatched to the WTC
For example, as the mobilization increased, a number of Fire units that had not been assigned to the incident – but wanted to help – contacted the Fire Dispatch
19 In addition to 183 ladder and engine units, nearly all special operations units of the Department were assigned to the incident.
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Center repeatedly by radio, asking that they be authorized to respond. In some of these cases, Dispatch relented and assigned them. Many EMS and private ambulance units did the same with the EMS Dispatch Center. This complicated efforts by the dispatchers to manage the response and, in some cases, led to the deployment of units that probably would not have been deployed had they not insisted.
Self-dispatch of Fire units is minimal
Out of the more than 200 Fire units responding, only four proceeded to the incident without being deployed by Fire Dispatch. Of these units, two informed Dispatch that they were responding and demanded an MDT ticket assigning them to the incident. Two others proceeded directly to the incident without Dispatch’s knowledge: one of these responded at approximately 9:20 a.m. after responding to an unrelated incident. Another unit sent a radio transmission regarding injured civilians on the 35th floor of WTC 1 despite the fact that Dispatch records at that time indicated that this unit was available at the firehouse.
Incident timing leads to response of off-duty firefighters
Another factor that increased the size and complexity of the response was the timing of the attack. Because the attack coincided with the change of tours in the firehouses at 9:00 a.m., numerous units responded with both night-tour and daytour members. (Exhibit 9 contains examples of units responding with additional off-duty personnel who were ending their shift.).
In addition, other off-duty firefighters and officers reported to firehouses and directly to the incident scene in response to the recall issued by the Department. Some recalled firefighters responded to the scene by riding with on-duty units.
Normally, the officer in charge of each company knows the names of all firefighters and officers responding to an incident. At the start of every tour, the officer fills out a “riding list,” a form recording the names of personnel assigned to each apparatus. One copy of the riding list is stored on the apparatus and the officer keeps another copy himself. Multiple riding lists were destroyed on September 11. This was one of several factors that prevented the Department from having accurate records of those who responded to the incident.
Recall mobilizes additional off-duty firefighters
The Chief of Department directed issuance of a recall of all off-duty firefighters and officers at 9:29 a.m. The recall order was broadcast by public media outlets and dispatched across FDNY radio channels. Thousands of off-duty firefighters and EMS personnel left their families to help the city and the Department respond to the attacks.
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While the Fire Department had a recall procedure for Fire Operations personnel, it had not been activated for more than 30 years and personnel received no training in its activation. As a result, the recall was disorganized and ineffective. The initial recall order did not include specific directions on where firefighters were to report. Recalled firefighters responded to multiple locations, including directly to the incident area, the firehouse closest to their location at the time of the recall, their own firehouse, or to recall staging areas which were established and communicated later in the morning.
Our interviews revealed that the Department faced substantial logistical problems transporting and equipping members responding to the recall, even after they had assembled in recall staging areas or had deployed to the incident area. All reserve apparatus and vehicles were put in service with recalled personnel. They were used at the WTC incident as well as to augment citywide coverage.
Mutual aid request brings Nassau and Westchester units
Before September 11, the FDNY had rarely requested mutual aid from departments outside the city to support fire operations. The Department had no process for evaluating the need for mutual aid, nor any formal methods of requesting that aid or managing it. Therefore, the Department had limited ability to evaluate how mutual aid could be integrated into its operations. However, due to the magnitude of the WTC incident, FDNY personnel sought mutual aid from Westchester County at approximately 10:07 a.m., and from Nassau County at 10:23 a.m.
These initial mutual aid requests did not specify the level and type of resources needed. In addition, the FDNY did not have adequate information on the resources and capabilities of departments in surrounding cities and counties (e.g., the size, capabilities and expertise of different units). And, the FDNY had minimal operational training with surrounding fire departments, and hence had limited ability to evaluate whether and how resources from other departments could be integrated with the FDNY’s operations. For instance, it could not tell whether procedures could be integrated, equipment could interoperate, and whether the capabilities of units with the same names (e.g., rescue or hazmat) were comparable.
Our interviews and review of dispatch tapes indicate that mutual aid received from neighboring fire departments on September 11 consisted primarily of engine and ladder units. Some mutual aid units deployed to staging areas. Some deployed directly to the incident and others were paired with FDNY units to help maintain citywide coverage.
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FDNY Fire Operations response on September 11