FDNY Slow To Make Changes

By William Murphy
Staff Writer

September 9, 2003

Two years after the attack on the World Trade Center devastated the Fire Department with the loss of 343 of its own, the city has not fully implemented most of the steps its own consultant said were necessary if faced with another massive terrorist attack.

It has not created a second hazardous-materials unit nor expanded its heavy rescue and marine companies, as recommended by the consultant, McKinsey & Company. It has not set up new protocols for establishing command posts, nor boosted its radio system to the level recommended.

Salvatore Cassano, the chief of operations, said in an interview Friday that the department had made significant progress in several areas of training and staffing since Sept. 11, 2001.

But he acknowledged the department had not created the new haz-mat unit and has no plans to do so. Nor have heavy rescue and marine operations been expanded.

"We have added training to help (new firefighters) cope with the experiences they will get in the field," said department spokesman Michael Loughran. \

He said that included intensified training in haz-mat and marine operations, though far less than the training required of the certified firefighters in those specialized units.

The leaders of the two fire unions, representing firefighters and superior officers, said in separate interviews recently that the department had not fully implemented a dozen key recommendations by the consultant.

Among them, the unions said, the department has not created a stand-alone crisis operations center, has no final protocol for recalling off-duty firefighters in an emergency, and has not used police radio boosters to increase radio signals.

Cassano said that while not all the recommendations had been fully implemented, the Fire Department has taken steps to enhance operations.

For example, the department can use some, though not all, police radio boosters in an emergency, and is finalizing protocols on recalls and outreach to families.

In addition, it now has a written protocol to recall firefighters, though Cassano said it was being updated and would be re-issued.

He also said the department had established an operations center, and was used during the blackout last month. But it still lacks several key components, including TVs to monitor constant coverage of a breaking crisis, he said.

At the time the report was issued in August 2002, it was embraced by both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta.

But the report acknowledged that without the full commitment of fire officials and line commanders, its recommendations might fall on deaf ears.

"We point this out because the FDNY has contemplated several of the recommendations in this report before, but never fully brought them to fruition," the report said.

Officials at McKinsey said the company does not comment on the relationship with its clients.

The Fire Department has struggled in many ways to recover from the attack that cost it 343 lives and a combined 4,000 years of accumulated experience.

Replacing the 91 rigs crushed in World Trade Center was perhaps the simplest task. Several communities around the country raised money to buy new rigs in a show of support, and the city replaced the rest.

The department has hired 1,867 new firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001, about triple the number it would hire in a similar period, Loughran said. In addition, the department has promoted 1,050 men and women to higher ranks.

Nonetheless, the department has fewer uniformed positions filled today than it did two years ago. Six engine companies have been closed by budget cuts, and three of those resulted in neighborhood firehouses being closed.

Citing high sick leave rates, the department has reduced staffing levels on some engine companies.

The unions said it was no surprise that sick leave went up for the firefighters who worked at Ground Zero for days without proper breathing apparatus.

At the time of the trade center attack, the department had 63 more employees than budgeted, not an unusual number in light of retirement cycles.

As of Jan. 2003, it had 731 unfilled positions, most of them in the firefighter ranks, according to an analysis by the city's Independent Budget Office.

That has been partially offset by the recent graduation of 346 probationary firefighters from training class, but does not take into account the continuing wave of retirements after the attacks.

Fire union sources said last week that they expect the imminent hiring of 300 additional firefighters, but the department officials declined to comment.

What is more difficult to assess is the emotional impact on the department, and whether its operations have been hindered by the loss of accumulated experience that was wiped out in minutes.

In the days after Sept. 11, one senior commander said, he was asked about the morale and he was unsure how to respond.

A day or so later, he said, he saw a message scrawled on a soot-stained wall near the site. "FNDY: Still the best job in the world," it read. "Then I knew they were going to be all right," the commander said.

Others are not so sure. Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said he is "shocked" to go into firehouses and find that the senior firefighter had been on the job only five years and the lieutenant had been an officer for only two years.

"I don't know how you can take that amount of experience out of a firehouse and not have an impact on firefighting and safety," Cassidy said in an interview.

A veteran captain who chose not to retire recently, although his pension would have been inflated with post-9/11 overtime, said he has detected a note of panic in some of the radio transmissions he hears at fires.

"I'm concerned we're losing the culture of the firehouse and how we get the job done," the captain said, asking not to be identified for fear of department reprisals.

"If the people ahead of you aren't making you brave, how do they make the next generation brave?" he said. "You hear screaming on the handi-talkies, screaming at a fire with a little bit of smoke and no real fire."

Both Cassidy and Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said it was hard to get the new generation of firefighters into specialty units, like haz-mat, because they want to experience several years of firefighting first. It was the reason they joined the department, the union officials said.

The anger of firefighters was vented last year on the officials of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. Seven of the nine members of the union's executive board chose not to run for re-election, or were ousted by an insurgent.

The current president, Cassidy, made a name for himself by attacking the union leadership for not being responsive to the needs of the members after 9/11.

While the department struggled to arrange 343 funerals or memorials, counsel families and arrange financial matters for them, it has nonetheless been seen by firefighters as insensitive to their needs.

"From day one, from Sept. 11th, we got no help from the department," said John Kelly, now the union's Brooklyn trustee.

"It was the men in the house, the men in the area firehouses, the people in the neighborhood, who dragged us through," said Kelly who was one of 20 firefighters assigned to Engine 201 in Sunset Park as of 9/11.

His unit lost lost three firefighters and a lieutenant at the trade center. The lone survivor from the crew on duty that day was the firefighter who was driving that day and remained by the pumper.