Diana Kelly Levey

The FDNY’s Preparedness and Training Post-9/11

September 10, 2018 | Categories:

(This article was originally published in 2016.)

Fifteen years ago, the largest and most unexpected emergency response event in the modern history of New York City forever changed the world in which we live. After losing 343 members of the FDNY family on 9/11, the Department was forever changed, rebuilt out of the ashes and now is stronger and more resilient than ever before.

“We saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Center at 8:46 that morning on the 11th and knew we were going to the largest fire of our lives,” said Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer, Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness. “As Firefighters came in, they knew they were going to a dangerous operation. As Firefighters climbed the stairs, they did some ordinary things, but at an extraordinary time that made a difference. They encouraged people exiting, ‘Keep going.’ ‘Don’t stop!’ ‘You can make it out of here.’ It kept them moving out,” he remembered. Chief Pfeifer was set up at the North Tower and once he heard the roar of the South Tower collapsing, he ordered all of the units in the North Tower to evacuate the building.

“As Firefighters were coming down the North Tower, some stopped along the way. One was a Lieutenant with his Company, Engine 33, who stopped on the ninth floor and directed units from the C stairs, which led out to the B stairs. That slowed his retreat down, but got other Fire units out of the building quickly. We know that from personal accounts. The Captain of Ladder 6 stopped because there was a woman who couldn’t walk any farther. He put her in a chair and started to carry her. Then, at 10:28 that morning, the North Tower collapsed. That Lieutenant was my brother, Kevin. Miraculously, the Ladder 6’s Captain Jay Jonas and his company survived. They were caught in the only survivable pocket in the B stairs on the fourth floor. It’s an incredible story of Firefighters helping each other and the people in the building. While we focus on the loss that day of the 343 FDNY members and 2,753 other casualties at the World Trade Center, we need to remember that our efforts saved 20,000 people,” emphasized Chief Pfeifer.

After 9/11, the McKinsey & Company volunteered services for the City to look at the World Trade Center and what lessons could be learned from the attack and rescue and recovery effort. In March 2002, Chief Pfeifer and others joined that team and worked with it for six months. “We took a very honest look at what took place and wrote an extensive report about how we could improve the Department,” Chief Pfeifer said. “The report led to the Department’s first strategic plan in 2004.”

Here’s how the Department improved, strengthened and emerged from out of the ashes.

Preparing for Terrorism

“We learned that we needed an Incident Management System (IMS) for a large-scale, complex offense,” explained Chief Pfeifer. The FDNY did have an IMS in place for small-scale events, but really didn’t know how to apply it for large events. From there, an Incident Management Team (IMT) was formed.

The Department created the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness in 2004. “We look at terrorism and how to prepare for it in a number of ways. In a secure room at the Fire Department Operation Center (FDOC), the Intel section personnel looks at classified and classified information on understanding a threatened environment, as well as weapons of mass destruction. We are evaluating: ‘What is the threat and what is our vulnerability as a City’? Then, we consider the consequence of those two elements,” Chief Pfeifer continued.

The Department has an Exercise Design Team whose members create a series of tabletop exercises where members strategize in a room and formulate responses based on different scenarios. These could be based on what’s happening around the world, such as active shooters and bombings, to potential scenarios, and then plan for how the Department would handle those scenarios. “These exercises not only reinforce the techniques, tactics and procedures that we already have, but it finds gaps,” commented Chief Pfeifer.

When an event occurs, it’s immediately assessed by the FDNY and team members rapidly disseminate that information to all units. Then, an analysis of the event takes place. The CTDP takes information from many sources and generates a report that can be shared throughout the Department. “The third level is that we go to that city. We conduct interviews with people who were at the scene.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, we sat down with that city’s EMS personnel, Firefighters, police officers and emergency managers and listened to their accounts of operations during and after the attack. From what they told us, we came back and reviewed FDNY emergency response plans; in this case, it was improvised explosive device (IED) bombs,” Chief Pfeifer related. After the Paris attacks last November, FDNY dispatched to Europe to undertake a similar process. “We went to hospitals and met with the doctors who were there. We listened to their narratives and how they handled an influx of patients,” continued Chief Pfeifer. From there, our members came back and relayed information from Paris back to the FDNY and the Department of Homeland Security.

Creating Exercise Design

“Chief Pfeifer is the one who identified the need to have joint representation by Fire and EMS personnel as participants at these exercises,” remembered Captain Charles Fraser, FDNY Center for Terrorism & Disaster Preparedness. “Chief Pfeifer said, ‘We’re all one Department, we need to bring everyone together’ and, subsequently, that is how the Exercise Design Unit came about, bringing both sides together to look at these different kinds of exercises and events,” said Captain Fraser.

The Exercise Design team of the Department looks at vulnerabilities from around the world, whether they’re naturally occurring events or a man-made threat. “Additionally, we then work with our Intel section here, our risk analysis section and look at those terroristic events that occur, both within the United States, as well as internationally,” continued Captain Fraser.

Using the example of the Boston Marathon bombing, Captain Fraser explained how Exercise Design works. On April 15, 2013, two backpack bombs went off, basically within 115 seconds of each other, along the Boston Marathon route. There were a few fatalities and numerous injuries. “One of the things we looked at with the Boston Marathon bombing is that it was an open-air venue; people were standing along the street watching. That same kind of scenario could happen at the New York City Marathon, with millions of people along that route,” he cautioned. We developed a workshop, comprised of subject matter experts from various FDNY Bureaus and units to strategize. “In a workshop, we looked at, ‘What are our vulnerabilities? What’s our concern in an open-air event? There might be access issues, security issues and communication problems. How would our first-responding units operate in that kind of environment”?

At a tabletop, we can identify areas where improvements could be made. After gathering information about the Boston Marathon, the Exercise Design team conducted five tabletops to prepare for a potential threat in New York. “We took each area of the New York City Marathon and brought in the responders for that route. We created a scenario for their specific area, such as telling them that a vehicle-borne incendiary device (VBIED) went off. Now, the EMS and Fire Officers had to think through that complexity of handling the initial few minutes only with the resources that they had on-hand. What are some of your concerns? Is there a secondary device? Do we need to shield? What information do we need to get out? If we have victims, what can we do? What are some of the best practices? All of that came out of a tabletop,” said Captain Fraser.

“From there, we accumulated some great, after-action information and lessons learned and we moved on to do full-scale exercises around the City–at Randall’s Island, on Staten Island at the starting line and another one in Queens. On a quiet Sunday morning, we simulated an explosion along the route,” Captain Fraser continued.

Those full-scale exercises include the actual line companies, first responders, EMTs, the ambulances that sit on every street corner, the Fire engines and ladders and Chiefs who respond. “We bring it down to what we call a local level, right to them. They’re going to be doing the work; they’re the ones from whom we want to capture the data. At those full-scale exercises, we actually allow them to come forth and say, ‘Hey, this was great, but I noticed this was a struggle.’ That’s great information. We want to hear feedback from them,” explained Captain Fraser.

“If there’s ambiguity on the role and responsibility of the EMS member or Firefighter at a mass-casualty incident (MCI), then we would take that after-action report and provide the information to the appropriate Department Bureaus. Next, we separated out the pieces. We say this is an operational issue, such as we need more Firefighters, more ambulances or we need certain kinds of equipment to manage this. Training would develop a program to address and suit that specific kind of incident, said Captain Fraser.

How Training Has Changed

“After 911, once everything began to settle down and the rebuilding effort had begun, we had an amazing increase in access to federal grant money that led to significant advancements in training,” recalled Deputy Assistant Chief Lillian Bonsignore, Chief of EMS Training. “We learned a tremendous amount about the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which did not receive a lot of attention prior to 9/11. That detailed how we would respond as a Department to a large-scale event. We started to become more consistent with the rest of the nation. We put a lot of training and work into learning the NIMS. Today, we do a lot of training in START triage, the ability to triage and treat multiple patients as quickly as possible at mass-casualty incidents. All of our training was geared toward that for quite some time after 9/11 and it still receives heavy emphasis in our curriculum. We put a lot of effort into that,” Chief Bonsignore related.

After the CTDP dissects the performance of first responders from events around the world, they hand that information off to Training Chiefs. “The EMS and Fire Academies then are given some of those results and we turn the data into exercises and drills,” said Chief Bonsignore. “This gives us the opportunity to learn from people who already have responded to some of these events, really absorb the lessons and have an opportunity to practice before the real day comes. The Center of Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness coordinates these joint training initiatives and drills and conducts large-scale practice drills of large-scale events. Then we do the dance the way we would if we were going to the show.”

Sometimes, the large-scale event includes multiple agencies. “We participated in a recent active shooter drill that was just an impressive undertaking–from helicopters, to Secret Service, FBI, NYPD, to SWAT. Everybody starts to take part in these drills,” Chief Bonsignore said. “It’s run as though it’s a live event and then we analyze everyone’s performance. We have instructors in place at the different sections of the event and everyone is evaluating a different aspect of a simulated incident. Then, we can take those results and strengthen areas that need to be strengthened, reinforce areas that need to be reinforced or develop new tactics if necessary, based on some of the performance data. This has been an incredible training tool.”

Shortly after the merger of FDNY and EMS, the EMS Special Operations Division was disbanded. But, in 2003, as the Department rebuilt, the EMS Special Operations Division was re-established as the Haz-Tac Battalion and now has 39 units and about 400 people, said Deputy Chief Paul Miano, Haz-Tac Battalion. The Haz-Tac unit responds to any incident that has a haz-mat or biological component from chemical releases or chemical suicide, all the way up to and through radiation. The most recent incident was biological in the form of Ebola.

Our Rescue Medics–who also are haz-mat-trained–respond to any technical incident, such as building collapses, people stuck in trenches or confined spaces or high-angle rescues. “If we’re operating next to the fire bomb and somebody is stuck in the trench, Firefighters work on securing the trench and removing the patient from the trench safely. Rescue Medics are down there performing strictly medical work, to assess the patient for any life-threatening injuries and try to provide any corrective or preventive measures while the process is going on,” Chief Miano explained.

Increasing Situational Awareness

Preparing for a potential secondary device and practicing situational awareness were put into training after the World Trade Center collapses. First responders are taught to slow their approach, look around and be aware that there is a possibility of a secondary device. “We became more cognizant of everything that was going on around us. We became more responsible for each other and keeping track of where everyone was at all times,” said Chief Bonsignore. She said that now EMS first responders are taught to consider bombs in cars, mailboxes and garbage cans. Shootings are pretty common for EMS, but now they’re thinking active shooter. “We’re the lifesavers of this City and have a responsibility to the people who live here, as well as to ourselves. It was a pretty drastic change in the approach to how we took our training,” remarked Chief Bonsignore.

“Instead of just running in, what we are doing is setting up a command structure. We are systematically deploying people and we have a better communication system, all based on what we learned from 9/11,” related Chief Pfeifer. “We have a greater understanding of the threat environment. We’re obtaining better situational awareness to manage an event with a joint or unified command, particularly with NYPD.”

Every new member to EMS comes to the Haz-Tac Battalion for three days and they are given a First Responders Operations Class. “We teach every single member basically how to get home at the end of the day,” explained Chief Miano. “We tell them, don’t just rush into this. We teach them how to survey a scene and look for key items, whether bombing materials, drugs or drug lab materials. We teach them how to identify that and how to react appropriately. As EMS providers, we’re brought into people’s most intimate settings—their homes. We’re there for them for a medical emergency. But most people don’t realize that we’re being hyper-vigilant and simultaneously looking around for anything suspicious,” Chief Miano said.

“Since 9/11, everyone is expected to be aware and have knowledge that might be part of a response, rather than just a selected group,” said Dr. Dario Gonzalez, Associate Medical Director, Division 2, Medical Director/OMA, and USAR Medical Team Manager. There is much more training and awareness of what each responder’s role is. Instead of saying, you’re an EMT, you ought to know this, or you’re a Firefighter, you have to know that, training has increased awareness across the board, whether it be radiological, biological or chemical. The Department pre-plans, trains and operates as one.

Lessons Learned from Beyond the City Limits

The USAR team still functions the way it did before 9/11, Dr. Gonzalez mentioned. The McKinsey report, Increasing FDNY’s Preparedness, allowed us to establish the Haz-Tac group, which is for the City’s search and rescue operations without utilizing federal resources, explained Dr. Gonzalez. The USAR Team has traveled to Boston and recently California, where they observed and helped manage some incidents. “We take that information and training and now incorporate it into what we do in New York,” Dr. Gonzalez commented. A lot of what the City has done is really power off of that instead of reinventing the wheel. The Department looks at some of those lessons learned and determines how they could be used to improve the preparedness and safety of New York City, he continued.

“It’s easy to be reactive to a fire or an incident when we have problems…we’re very good at that. I think what we’re seeing now because the incidents are more common and frequent, is that we are presented with more lessons learned from these events. We spent a lot of time talking about Paris and Brussels, as well as what’s been going on with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and asking, ‘How do we learn from that’? We might be looking at the role of the IED and how it really affects everybody, as well as the use of tactics; using that general information and trying to look at some of those examples…where we can examine the military models. Some of it doesn’t apply; some of it does. I think there’s a much greater emphasis on pre-planning and development and trying to think out of the box, which sometimes works very well and sometimes it’s very surprising,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “We’re looking at radiation issues, what happens in a chemical event. We’re also questioning, ‘What’s going on around the world? How would we respond? We’ve become more global with our thinking,” Dr. Gonzalez concluded.

Tiered System of Response

We are all about developing systems, said then Chief of Department James E. Leonard. “One of the things that we became very good at and now we do at all levels, is having a tiered system of response. In other words, let’s say for haz-mat incidents, all our Firefighters, EMTs and Paramedics train to the operational level. We have a smaller number of people trained to the Tech 1 and Tech 2 levels and then another smaller level of people who are specialists. This allows us to handle many more incidents, rather than having one haz-mat unit to do everything. We have, on-duty, every day, 25 units that can operate in level-A suits at all different levels. Developing the tiered system was critical,” remarked Chief Leonard.



“Right now, we have five Borough Commands that we can quickly decentralize to basically five different departments. By doing a lot more tabletops and training with NYPD, we can prepare for multiple, large-scale incidents occurring in the City simultaneously. We want to spread everybody out and be able to handle what’s going on, such as an active shooter in Grand Central Station, followed 20 minutes later by an active shooter in the Jamaica LIRR station and a third active shooter at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, all creating mass-casualty incidents. We would be able to handle them all, explained Chief Leonard.”

Development of an Operations Center

The FDOC, located at FDNY Headquarters, also was constructed after the McKinsey report findings were released and gives the Department greater situational awareness, said Chief Leonard. “The Command Chiefs can be in there and see the City as a whole. In the past year, we opened up a second FDOC for redundancy. As part of the Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), if one FDOC was inoperative, we could move quickly to the next. We didn’t have that ability prior to 9/11,” Chief Leonard commented.
The FDOC allows us to manage day-to-day events and large-scale events, explained Chief Pfeifer. The key to that is to share information. “We share information in two ways. One is in person, so we unify command using the Incident Management System. The other way is electronically. Now we place a Chief in a NYPD helicopter and receive live radio reports directly from above. We also partnered with the news media to get large feeds from them. On 9/11, we didn’t have any communication from helicopters to get reports or aerial pictures of what was happening. Just having the ability to see the situation from an aerial view would have changed a lot of things,” said Chief Pfeifer. The Department also plans on dispatching its own tethered aerial drones.

Better High-Tech PPE

As a result of 9/11, the Department received a great deal of equipment and that required comprehensive training. “Now we’ve got our personal protective equipment (PPE) that includes pants, jacket and helmets,” said Chief Bonsignore. Everyone in the Department now has better radios, as well as the training on them, as a result of the McKinsey report, which revealed that communication was terrible on 9/11. Chiefs are issued a 45-watt post radio for overcoming challenging communications environments, in addition to the two five-watt EMS and fireground portable radios they routinely carry.

The Haz-Tac unit was developed out of 9/11. The FDNY EMS (ALS and BLS) units, known as Hazardous Material Tactical Units (Haz-Tac ambulances), have members trained to the level of Hazardous Materials Technician so they can provide emergency medical care and decontamination in a hazardous environment.

While the EMS work-duty uniform has remained the same, after 9/11, each EMS member was given PPE, which is similar to bunker-gear-style equipment. “This is what we use whenever we’re going to operate on anything such as car accidents, where there are sharp objects and glass. This PPE can protect us from being cut,” Chief Miano explained.

The second item that we got was the millennium air-purifying respirator or APR. We trained all the EMS members to use it at operational and awareness levels; identify if there’s a hazard, put on this mask and get out. Situations are broken down into areas: the cold zone, where there is no chance of being exposed or contaminated; the warm zone, with very little chance of exposure or contamination; and the hot zone, where all activity is going on and danger levels are high. After discovering that EMS members can operate safely in these APRs, everyone was trained in the operational level and now they can work and perform triage in the warm zone, as well as the cold zone. Haz-Tac members will operate in the warm and hot zones only with additional equipment.

The FDNY Rescue Paramedics have harnesses that they wear for high-angle rescues, working in conjunction with the Department’s Fire Rescue Battalion. The Marine Rescue Paramedics are Rescue Medics who are trained to operate with the Marine Battalion on the boat. At special events, such as the triathlon, they are pre-staged in the water and if someone gets hurt or sick while swimming, they can swoop in, grab the person and start treatment on the vessel, said Chief Miano.

We’re also training more than 600 FDNY members in a Counter-Terrorism Task Force to deal with an active shooter or bombing, said Chief Leonard. “The Department just ordered more than 500 sets of full ballistic gear (vest and helmet), so FDNY responders can work with the NYPD in the warm zone.”

The Counter-Terrorism Task Force (CTTF) has run drills for an active shooter and been trained on bleeding control and hemorrhage control with tourniquet, as well as dressings where we can pack a wound in a place where we couldn’t put a tourniquet. This gauze is impregnated with something called Kaolin, which is a clotting mechanism, detailed Chief Miano. If a bomb or mass shooting occurs, the CTTF would link up with the Police Department’s Strategical Response Group (SRG) for protection and be able to move in and protect patients.

Leadership Training Established

The FDNY Officers Management Institute (FOMI) was developed, in partnership with Columbia and General Electric. Funded by the FDNY Foundation, the official non-profit organization of the Department, FOMI is an executive leadership training program available to EMS and Fire Officers. Everyone comes together for training on certain terrorism operations, such as bus bombs or even high-rise fires. “These joint training initiatives were in high gear after 9/11 and the EMS found its place in the Department,” recalled Chief Bonsignore. “We no longer are separate Fire and EMS. We started to fold into the Department and saw that we were going to be working more closely together.”

“One of the strengths in creating FOMI is the ability to teach people to initiate project management and we really didn’t have that before,” Chief Leonard commented.
In addition, FDNY’s CTDP has partnered with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to conduct a one-week Counterterrorism Leadership Program (CLP) for rising EMS and Fire Officers. This program examines the current threat environment and various terrorist groups and motives, as well how to manage complex terrorist attacks.

Looking Ahead

As 15 years have passed since 9/11 a majority of current members (approximately 75 percent of the force) were not among those who took part in that rescue effort. “It’s very important for those of us, who have lived through it and have these lessons firsthand, to make sure that we’re teaching it in a way that becomes something really usable for our future members,” Chief Bonsignore emphasized.

“We have become much more resilient and more capable of handling a multitude of incident types at the command and control level. The FDNY also has improved interactions and better working relationships with our strategic partners, including the NYPD, both the Port Authority and MTA Police agencies, the FBI, the U.S. military, Con Edison and all of the critical City infrastructure agencies,” remarked Chief Leonard. “Training and preparedness are critical parts of an everyday, ongoing mission. It’s inevitable that change will occur and we need to be continuously adapting and training for it. With almost 15,000 Firefighters and EMS members, it requires great dedication to our mission by every Department member, as well as a considerable financial commitment, to ensure that we are properly trained and prepared for the latest threats the world is facing.”

“Not only do we have to think about command and control and then practice it in a unified way, but we also need to be able to connect, collaborate and coordinate…These are the key elements that drive incident command,” explained Chief Pfeifer.

“Some of the best lessons learned that I’ve seen is that we have combined training with the Fire and EMS Officers, so now the Lieutenants, Captains and Chiefs on both sides of Fire and EMS go through a good amount of training together. That’s critical because we need to understand what the other does,” commented Captain Fraser. “Is change going to happen? Certainly, there’s always change. Are we going to learn more lessons? Of course we are. Do we have to continue to improve? Every day, every response, we have to improve and we have to critique ourselves and be comfortable saying, ‘I didn’t do so well on this run. How could I do it better’? We have to look at it that way and then follow up with training.”

“We never want to get to a point in this Department where we say we’ve won. Every day, we constantly re-evaluate. We need to identify our strengths, pinpoint our weaknesses and prepare. We don’t want to fight yesterday’s war. We have to be prepared for the ‘what-ifs’ and make educated and informed decisions. I think by having so many partners in all walks of life, it makes us stronger and it helps the Department make better decisions,” Chief Leonard concluded.

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