For FDNY, Few Post-9/11 Changes

By William Murphy
Staff Writer

March 22, 2003, 7:13 PM EST

The mayor and the fire commissioner stood in the ceremonial Blue Room of City Hall last Aug. 19 and promised changes in the Fire Department in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But few of those changes have been fully implemented.

Even when changes have been made, the firefighters' and officers' unions complain that they have been half-hearted efforts not accompanied by adequate training.

Department officials, while declining to respond to specific charges, have said repeatedly that they have taken measures needed to protect firefighters and the public. They have also said they are seeking more funding to increase the ability to respond.

Last summer's promises came in response to a report by a private consulting company that analyzed the Sept. 11 response. One of its most prominent recommendations was to beef up the Fire Department's ability to handle hazardous materials that could part of a terrorist act.

"The FDNY has just one hazmat unit," noted the report by McKinsey & Company. "Preparing and responding to attacks could require special operations capabilities well beyond those currently possessed by the FDNY."

"The main thing that McKinsey recommended is expansion of hazmat, and that has not happened," said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

"If, God forbid, there is a disaster here, I know who is going down. It's firefighters, the same people who went down in the World Trade Center," Gorman said.

Although the FDNY still has only one hazmat unit, Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said that a squad company -- a hybrid of an engine company with specially trained members -- has been shifted to Manhattan from either the Bronx or Brooklyn every day to serve as a back-up to the hazmat unit, which is based in Maspeth.

Those firefighters, however, did not receive the more extensive training given to firefighters assigned to the hazmat unit, he said.

"We are pursuing some nontraditional sources of funding in an attempt to bolster our capabilities," Gribbon said Friday.

Gribben also said the Fire Department would be training two additional ladder companies, starting next month, in hazardous-materials and rescue support operations.

Those two units would be drawn from the 7 units now equipped with special protective clothing, called Level A Suits.

But fire union sources said those units are often staffed with fill-in firefighters without special training when unit members are sick or on vacation.

Officials of the Uniformed Firefighters Association also said the department had not adequately trained firefighters in the use of new chemical protective suits, which have been issued to about 20 of the department's 200-plus units.

"They don't do the training," said the union official, who asked not to be identified.

Several UFA leaders have been reluctant to criticize the department publicly in recent days given the nation's war-time footing.

UFA President Stephen Cassidy, however, said before the outbreak of war that the city was not prepared to handle more than one terrorist emergency at a time.

Their criticism, and that of other emergency responders around the country, has also been directed at the federal government for not providing more funding for local preparation for a possible terrorist attack.

"It is incredible that we have had 18 months to prepare, but most of what we hear is rhetoric from Washington," said one UFA document provided to Newsday.

Last week, the Fire Department put off a planned decision by a blue-ribbon panel on whether to eliminate eight firefighting units, which would include closing four firehouses.

The department is also planning to reduce the number of firefighters on most engine companies from five firefighters to four.