FDNY Details Post-9/11 Hazmat and Terror Initiatives

It's been said many times, but the world did change after the attacks of Sept. 11 and no organization felt that change more profoundly than the Fire Department of New York.

Beyond the obvious command and personnel changes, there were some seismic shifts in operational procedures, especially when it comes to threats of terrorism.

"We need to get a better understanding of who is working against us and how we respond," said Robert Ingram, an FDNY Battalion Chief. "We've got to battle complacency. Every day we have without an event puts us a day closer to another one."

FDNY has been involved with terrorism training and planning since 1997, and some before, but Sept. 11 was a game changing event that forced the organization to become more proactive in is response and recovery, said Ingram, who spoke at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore this past summer. The title of his presentation was "FDNY: Haz-Mat and Terrorism Initiatives Since 9/11."

Ingram said one of the first things FDNY did toward recovery was to purchase over 1,000 Level A multi-threat protective garments with the help of funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Previous to the 9/11 attacks, FDNY had very few of the garments available.

They also learned that there were insufficient levels of breathing protection equipment in the department, Ingram said, adding EMS personnel didn't have any. To meet the needs, FDNY invested in equipment to provide all four levels of respiratory protection. He commented that the department now has equipment that will provide up to four hours of respiratory protection which is useful in high-rise operations.

One highly publicized operational and tactical change was in communication equipment, with new interoperability capabilities to give all involved agencies the ability to speak to each other in catastrophic events like those experience on 9/11, Ingram said.

Having the ability to speak with and work with other agencies is critical to the success of any mission, Ingram said.

FDNY also learned about the need for having decontamination equipment and personnel available at all times, Ingram said. Now, all firefighters are required to have 24 hours of decontamination training and engine companies carry decontamination equipment for both dry and wet hazards, he said.

Training for new recruits and new lieutenants is required in areas of terrorism and mass casualty incidents, he said, noting that it's important to "maintain skills and knowledge that most firefighters don't use every day."

There were many logistical lessons learned as a result of the attacks as well, Ingram said. Transportation resources were sorely tested as debris-clogged streets made it virtually impossible to move people and equipment around the scene, he said.

"Gators (ATVs) became the primary way to get people and equipment around," he said, noting that FDNY now has them available for use when needed.

They also learned that having "pods" of wood, plywood beams and other related search and rescue equipment staged around the city will pay dividends if the unthinkable ever happens again.

"Pods have become a staple of FDNY," he said.

That type of system might work for other department too, but Ingram recommends that all departments assess what its members believe are the most likely threats and invest in materials and plans to meet that condition should it ever arise, he said.

"You need to do assessment of risks and needs in your community and figure out if you have the resources to meet whatever that real threat is," he said.

For FDNY, they determined that an attack that cripples the water system, like the attacks on the World Trade Center did, required an alternative source of water. So the department updated its 70-year-old fleet of fire boats with three new boats capable of pumping 50,000 gpm.

FDNY also decided that the threat of a "dirty bomb" was real and the need to protect its members was great. That's why it invested in radiation detection equipment for every person on duty.

Terrorism is not new to New York, with one of the first documented cases dating back to 1920 when a horse-drawn wagon filled with dynamite was detonated on Wall Street, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more, Ingram said.

Ingram said the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a clandestine Puerto Rican paramilitary organization, was responsible for 49 bomb attacks in New York City between 1974 and 1979. And there have been other attacks, including one on the World Trade Center in 1993.

"Terrorism is nothing new, but there are some things we have to do to adapt and be prepared for it," Ingram said.

As part of that preparation, the department developed the FDNY Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness which developed a response strategy and has become the agency to receive confidential information and intelligence to help determine responses.

Ingram said it's also important to remember that we're in this together and recognize the need to share not only information and education but resources as well.

"We cannot survive and move forward if we can’t get our own act in order," Ingram said.