Copyright 2002 Martin J. Steadman. All Rights Reserved. Terms and Conditions.

FDNY Distress Call!

By Martin J. Steadman

Andrew Savulich/Daily News†

FDNY Capt. Michael Dugan, raises the American flag in a haunting call of distress, which mirrors the imperiled state of the New York City Fire Department itself!

By Martin J. Steadman

First, full disclosure. I was a reporter, a good one, a long time ago. I covered my share of police news, the courts and fatal fires before I was graduated to the press rooms of City Hall and the State Capitol. When I left the news business in 1969, one of my first clients was the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, the union that represents lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs of the New York City Fire Department.

So I know something about the FDNY, and though I am employed by the Fire Officers union, my words should not be summarily dismissed because Iím a paid consultant. I still know right from wrong when I see it.

Whatís wrong today is that city officials are telling the press and the public the Fire Department is fine and it will soon be rebuilt and will be better than ever. Thatís a lie, another lie, and a third lie. The truth is the FDNY is in terrible shape, it will be many more years before it is rebuilt, and things will get worse before it gets better.

The Fire Department lost 343 men in less than an hour on 9/11/2001 at the World Trade Center. Of that number, 89 were superior officers of every rank, all the way up to Chief of the Department. On that day, the Department lost 4,400 years of service.

Since then, more than 1,300 veteran firefighters and fire officers have retired, taking with them 30,000 more years of service. Though the city administration was repeatedly warned that the unprecedented rate of retirements was jeopardizing the safety of the public, not to mention the safety of members of the FDNY, the Bloomberg administration has steadfastly refused to acknowledge and address the problem.

New York City firefighters are still equipped with hand-held radios that donít work in skyscrapers or subways, and other critical instances such as large schools and hospitals. The problem was first identified in 1993, when terrorists tried to bomb one of the Twin Towers off its foundation. Eight years later, sent into the WTC with those same failed radios, scores of firefighters died when they did not hear repeated orders to evacuate the buildings. To this date, everything the Fire Department has done to remedy the radio situation has been bungled, in a long-running civic scandal that no one wants to fully investigate. No one. Not anyone in law enforcement. Not anyone in the press. Not anyone at FDNY headquarters or City Hall or Albany or Washington. Shame on all of them. Someone is responsible for the deaths of all those firefighters, and the continuing jeopardy to every firefighter today, and no one wants to know who, what, when, where, why or how.

Much is being made in the press these days about proposed budget cuts in the FDNY, dependent on how much money the city is able to raise in increased taxes and additional state and federal aid. But no matter what the increased revenues may total, the cuts in the Fire Department are already a done deal. As of November 1, the 11,410-member force was 507 below quota. Retirements are running at about 180 per month, and a class of 300 probationary firefighters was postponed indefinitely in mid-October, the equivalent of a hiring freeze. Add it all up and the FDNY will be minus approximately 860 members by Christmas. Engine companies will be closed because they can no longer be fully manned. There is no doubt in the minds of New York Cityís firefighters that this was the City Hall plan from January 1. The Bloomberg administration wants a younger, smaller, cheaper Fire Department.

There is so much more. Once the FDNY had 10 fireboats, the pride of New York Harbor. Then in 1959 there were 8, and in 1970 there were 6, and in 1976 there were 4. In 1991 another boat was retired and there were only three large boats and one small one when the terrorist attack occurred on 9/11. One fireboat was tied to the pier because it didnít have a crew. The small boat was used as a tender. The other two were dispatched to the World Trade Center, which soon had no water because the infrastructure there was crushed and buried. The two fireboats that made it to the scene struggled with engine failures and broken pumps, unable to deliver sufficient amounts of Hudson River water onto the site. With underground fires raging unchecked, hundreds of firefighters were unable to commence rescue and recovery efforts until a decommissioned fireboat that had become a tourist attraction along the Hudson was rushed back into service to provide additional water. The cityís consultant report stated the case ever so gently, as follows, "The pumping capabilities of the boats on September 11 and on succeeding days were below design capacity due to mechanical problems. A privately owned boat provided much additional pumping capacity." Beautiful. When I broke into the news business here there were 10 FDNY fireboats, all of them fully manned and in good working condition.

And much has been made of the fact that a police helicopter radioed a warning at 10:07 a.m. on 9/11, shortly after the collapse of the south tower, a warning that the north tower was in imminent danger of collapse. The New York Times, in one of a series of in-depth stories based on Oral History interviews of rescue workers that the newspaper was able to obtain, led its account with the warning from the NYPD helicopter shortly after the south tower fell and 21 minutes before the second building came down. The Times estimated there were 121 firefighters still in the north tower, none of whom heard the police radio warning and all of whom died.

The police helicopter warning has become the focus of all the What Went Wrong stories since. But in the same July 7 story, down in the middle of its massive account, The Times reported that a high-ranking chief of the FDNY radioed an evacuation order to all firefighters in the north tower at 9:32 a.m., after he felt the building move and saw the structure buckling and the windows breaking all around him in the lobby. That was 27 minutes before the south tower fell, 35 minutes before the police helicopter warning that the north tower was certain to go, and a full 56 minutes before the north tower collapsed.

But hundreds of firefighters in the floors above never heard the Staff Chiefís radio command on their own radios, nor did they hear any of the frantic calls to evacuate that followed. And with 27 minutes still left before the first collapse, no one in the south tower heard his evacuation order either. The FDNY radios, the same ones that failed at the WTC in 1993, failed again at the same place eight years later. They couldnít be heard on the floors above, they couldnít be heard on the floors below, and they couldnít be heard from one WTC lobby to the other. The Times has unintentionally done history a disservice with its emphasis on a 10:07 a.m. radio warning from a police helicopter. The emphasis should have been on a 9:32 a.m. order by Staff Chief Joseph Callan to his firefighters to "come down to the lobby, everyone down to the lobby." No one knows how many more times the Fire Department lobby command center repeated those evacuation orders on their worthless, useless radios that morning. We only know that too many firefighters on the floors above never heard the commands.

As for the current wisdom that the police and fire departments didnít work together on 9/11, contrary to what you may have read there was a plan in place for the NYPD and the FDNY to work together in high-rise fires. The plan was developed after the 1993 WTC bombing and it envisioned possible roof-top rescues that would involve two police helicopters carrying rescue companies from the FDNY. A battalion chief would ride in one of the helicopters, equipped with a police radio that would tie him into an Emergency Services Division police officer that would respond immediately to fire commanders in the lobby of the building.

That never happened on 9/11 because the fire commanders were unable to reach the Fire Dispatcher on the department radio to trigger the rescue plan. It is important to say here that no one at the scene believed then, or believes now, that a roof-top rescue could have worked that day. The buildings each resembled a giant blowtorch, some said. But there could have been, and should have been an FDNY battalion chief in the sky, and there should have been an Emergency Services cop with an NYPD radio in the lobby with the fire chiefs. It didnít happen because the fire chiefs at the command center were unable to reach their own Dispatcher to initiate the helicopter team plan.

Has anyone in city government learned anything from the disaster at the World Trade Center? Yes, the city hired a consultant to tell them what to do in the future. But no one expects the recommendations to be implemented soon because of budget constraints.

A telling indication of what has happened since then came in testimony by the Fire Commissioner before the City Council in September. A Council member asked the Commissioner if he thought the Department should have its own helicopter. That would be nice, the Commissioner said, but the city doesnít have the money.

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