New York City Fire Chief Blasts City Emergency Plan

NEW YORK (AP) -- The fire department chief, a top commander of operations at the 2001 World Trade Center attack, testified Monday that a new emergency response plan putting police in charge at the scene of a chemical or biological attack is confusing and dangerous.

Chief Peter Hayden's remarks were a rare example of a senior official stepping away from his bosses in the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg _ in this case to criticize a plan designed to improve coordination among city agencies in an emergency.

Bloomberg signed the protocol last month; the City Council scheduled hearings after the police and fire departments debated the protocol's details for months.

Firefighters argue their expertise with hazardous materials and their mandate to save lives should give them at least equal authority at the command center directing the response to an attack.

''If I'm going to put my people at risk, I need to participate fully in setting the plan of action,'' Chief Peter Hayden testified at a City Council hearing.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly argued the plan gives police the authority because of the extreme ramifications from those methods of attack, the potential for massive loss of life and simultaneous assaults.

''It is the stakes that are involved here that make this different,'' Kelly testified.

He said the investigation portion of the response, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, must be tightly managed and considered the top priority after tending to victims, which is the fire department's responsibility.

Hayden and several City Council members said, however, it is essentially a contradiction to give police the authority at hazmat incidents while insisting the fire department's lifesaving efforts will always take priority.

''I'm probably more confused now than I was coming into the hearing,'' Councilman James Oddo complained.

The emergency response issue is a sensitive one in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, in which 343 firefighters and 23 New York police officers were killed. While rescue workers were heralded for saving thousands of people, the lack of coordination between police and fire officials has been cited by several reviews, including the Sept. 11 commission.

''I'm confused, and my firefighters are confused, and the police officers on the street are going to be confused, and there will be a compromise of safety,'' Hayden said of the new protocol. ''If the objective of that document was to clarify the roles and responsibilities of these agencies, it failed.''

After the hearing, mayoral spokesman Ed Skyler said Bloomberg 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 City.''