In New Drills, Firefighters Are Following Frightening Scripts

The New York Fire Department is not known for its acting skills. But on Wednesday morning, 35 high-ranking fire chiefs gathered at the department's Brooklyn headquarters for a performance worthy of Hollywood.

The script laid out a frightening chain of events: a terrorist attack in which two bombs explode outside a Manhattan museum where the mayor is entertaining foreign dignitaries.

One group narrated the attack, using walkie-talkies and maps. Down the hall, five separate teams simulated rescue efforts. For three hours, they evacuated hotel guests, called in emergency medical teams and handled fresh disasters with near-surgical efficiency.

Nineteen months after its brave but flawed response at the World Trade Center, the Fire Department is developing a new approach to large-scale disasters. For the first time, it is training its top brass to respond to complex, long-term events, instead of just the short-term fires that are their usual fare.

The new training program, which includes two weeks of classes and three full days of disaster simulation, is being supervised by a group of Southwestern wildfire experts, mostly from the United States Forest Service. Unlike their students, the instructors have decades of experience managing huge fires that can last for weeks or even months on end.

The collaboration started a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, when a Forest Service team showed up at the Fire Department's temporary command post at a firehouse on Duane Street, not far from the remains of the towers. Assistant Operations Chief Peter Hayden set them up on the third floor of the firehouse, where they managed the Fire Department's logistics and planning operations for the next five weeks.

A year and a half later, they returned to New York and began teaching their techniques to 70 fire chiefs. They concluded this week with three disaster simulations: a plane crash near Kennedy Airport; the attack on the museum; and another terrorist attack, on a train in Queens.

The drills were no small challenge. In most urban fires, "the logistics component doesn't last through the next day," said Assistant Chief Michael Weinlein, who is coordinating the department's new training effort. Partly for that reason, most chiefs are used to running their own operations.

Much of the impetus for the new training stems from the events of Sept. 11.

An independent consultant, after a long review, concluded that the department had suffered from breakdowns in communication and discipline at the trade center. And the Naval War College, after meeting with fire chiefs, concluded that the department had done very little to plan for responding to complex, multiple-event disasters.

Under the Forest Service system, major disasters are run by "incident management teams" with clearly defined responsibilities. Instead of charging out to the scene