Fire Department Controversy New York City

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

May 10, 2005

Fire Chief Challenges New York Emergency Plan

The chief of the New York City Fire Department directly criticized the Bloomberg administration’s decision to give the police initial control at hazardous materials emergencies, telling a packed City Council chamber yesterday that it "makes no sense" and risks endangering firefighters and the public.

In startlingly frank language, Chief Peter E. Hayden, the city’s highest ranking fire officer, said he believed Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had signed off on a deeply flawed emergency response protocol based on bad advice from subordinates. He strongly suggested that the protocol represented a power grab by the Police Department.

And in testimony that seemed likely to rub old wounds raw, he revisited the morning of Sept. 11, saying that practices by both the Police and Fire Departments had put lives at risk.

That day, he said, police helicopters observed that one of the trade center towers was near collapse, "but police commanders became so focused on their own tasks that they neglected to perform the critical task of information sharing."

Chief Hayden said the city had not learned enough from its mistakes. "Instead of seeking to control each other, agencies having major roles at terrorist events must learn how to work together to command these incidents," he said.

"There is a human behavior element here, where people don’t want to share information because information is viewed as power," he said. "We see it in every level of government. The C.I.A. does not tell the F.B.I. The F.B.I. does not tell the N.Y.P.D. The N.Y.P.D. does not tell the F.D.N.Y. This is human behavior."

The chief delivered his assessment from the same witness table where, moments earlier, the police, fire and emergency management commissioners struggled to give a unified defense of the new protocol, which dictates that immediate police oversight of suspected terrorist events is the best way to protect lives. Chief Hayden attacked that argument, saying the Fire Department was better equipped to deal with life-threatening situations.

"The agency that is responsible for saving lives at a terrorist incident and for the rest of the city is not equally responsible for command," he said. "This does not make sense."

The mayor approved the new protocol last month, and the City Council cannot alter it. But the hearing provided the first public airing of the raging dispute over the new guidelines and raised anew questions of whether the city was adequately prepared to handle future terrorist attacks. It also laid bare the frustrations and rivalries that continue to bedevil relations between the Police and Fire Departments.

Firefighters filling the gallery broke into applause when Chief Hayden finished testifying, while the police officers present looked on quietly.

The spectacle of the fire chief sitting alone, pointedly disagreeing with the mayor, was not lost on the politicians present. Council Speaker Gifford Miller, a Democratic candidate for mayor, engaged in a long and ultimately inconclusive debate with the commissioners about the wisdom of their protocol.

Mr. Miller focused on the most disputed element of the protocol, a guideline that puts the police in charge at hazardous materials scenes until criminal or terrorist involvement can be ruled out. The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said the provision was necessary because of the seriousness of the incidents it addressed.

"We know that Al Qaeda wants to come here; this is the one place they want to come to again, New York," he said. "They’ve attacked here twice, and if they’re able to do it a third time, it’s a major, major victory for them. They’re looking to do it in a spectacular way. We have to be on our guard. This is, I believe, a lesson from 9/11, and that’s why the mayor decided to go forward with it."

Even with the police firmly in command, firefighters would still make all "life-safety" decisions affecting rescue operations, said Mr. Kelly and Joseph Bruno, the emergency management commissioner, although the wording of the protocol appears to say that fire officials would answer to police commanders in such situations.

Why did the protocol place the police in command of those situations, Mr. Miller asked, if the Fire Department would not be answerable to them on matters of life-safety? In a testy exchange, the Council speaker suggested that Mr. Kelly’s explanation was absurd, since in effect it endorsed putting the police in charge because doing so made the least sense.

"Now come on, I didn’t say that," Mr. Kelly protested, "I didn’t say that."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Mr. Kelly, obviously annoyed, said council members might have resisted accepting what he had to say because "it’s fun to ask these questions on television – give everybody face time."

Nicholas Scoppetta, the fire commissioner, who was mostly silent while much of the questioning focused on Mr. Kelly and Mr. Bruno, made it clear that his department had lost a behind-the-scenes dispute.

"I’ve been told publicly and privately that this is the final document and we’re going to go forward with it," he said. "The only responsible thing now for the Fire Department to do is to do everything in its power to make sure that it works and works well, because the stakes are very, very high."

None of the three commissioners stayed to hear Chief Hayden, who quickly dissected what he said were flaws in the protocol. He said he agreed with council members who suggested that the protocol would theoretically place a low-level patrol officer in charge of senior fire officials at an emergency scene, and he said the protocol was so poorly conceived that the commissioners "couldn’t even answer the questions straight" when asked about it.

"You heard testimony this morning from the commissioners here, and it’s very clear to me and I think to many people in this audience, they are very confused," he said. "And if they’re confused, then I’m confused, and my firefighters are confused, and the police officers in the street are going to be confused. And there will be a compromise of safety."

After the hearing, Chief Hayden told reporters that he hoped his decision to disagree publicly with the administration would not damage his relationship with the mayor, and that he felt Mr. Bloomberg "had been ill advised" when he approved the plan.

Asked about the fire chief’s remarks, the mayor’s office issued a brief statement defending the protocol: "Giving the Police Department the ability to investigate a situation to determine whether it is an act of terrorism is the responsible thing to do in the post-9/11 world. The mayor is confident that regardless of who is in charge of a given incident, every city agency will work together to provide the highest possible protection to the people of New York."

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