Firehouse Interview: FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen

Thomas Von Essen became New York City's 30th fire commissioner on March 29, 1996, after serving as a member of the FDNY for 26 years. Following two years of active duty in the U.S. Naval Submarine Service, Von Essen entered the FDNY's "proby school" in May 1970. He subsequently was assigned to Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx, where he spent spend over 15 years as a firefighter and also became the company delegate to the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA). This was the first of a number of increasingly senior positions the commissioner held in the organization that represents New York City's firefighters, culminating in his service as the UFA president, immediately prior to his appointment as fire commissioner.

Photo courtsey of FDNY
Thomas Von Essen

As head of the 9,000-plus-member firefighters union, Von Essen completely revamped the organizational structure of the UFA and implemented a number of modernization programs. He was the driving force in the re-affiliation of New York City's firefighter Local 94, the largest firefighter's local in the world, with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), and is responsible for the restoration of the fifth firefighter to 61 of the city's busiest engine companies. Von Essen has also been chairman of the New York City Pension Fund and is a member of a number of national and international firefighting organizations. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics from St. Francis College and a master's degree in education from C.W. Post College.

The commissioner met recently at the FDNY's new headquarters in Brooklyn with Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner and Executive Editor Jeff Barrington.

Firehouse: You respond to all third alarms and special emergencies. Could you explain your presence at those scenes?

Von Essen: I think it's important. It makes me understand better what everybody's dealing with in the field, not just at the chief's level. I try to get inside, if I can, to see what's going on on the fire floor. And I do it to understand what everybody's dealing with as far as confusion inside, bunker gear, how hot it is, stretches, boots, the helmets, the hoods.

Do the troops like that?

I think most of the guys know that I really care about safety more than anything else.

There was a five-alarm fire at the Lincoln Square residential high-rise in Manhattan. Did you go upstairs there?

Sure. That's the other place that I think makes a tremendous difference, the fact that you've gone up, you've seen a hallway that's 80 feet long, you've seen paint and metal doorways buckle, four inches of plaster fall down so you know how hot it was. When the press asks you what happened up there, you can really describe to them in more accurate and better detail what the firefighters had to accomplish.

The FDNY has been awarded the use of Fort Totten by the U.S. Army. What will that do for the department and what functions will be moved there?

We look forward to having almost all of our training out there, a high-tech facility where we can do training for all types of occupancies, schools for EMS, fire and hazmat. We hope to have the quartermaster and everything else that we can out there.

I don't think we'll be able to break ground for at least three years because we have to finalize all the leases and then we have to draw plans, send out for specs and hire contractors. It's going to take a while.

But I want to get the construction started while this administration (under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) is still around because it's been just unbelievably supportive of the department.

At one time, you estimated the training center would cost $100 million.

It's hard to put a price tag on it. That's a number that we've used as, we hope, an outside number, as the most it would be. We think it will be somewhere between $60 million and $100 million, depending on how extensive we get into technology.

Regarding new equipment, you're buying integrated PASS (personal alert safety system) devices for the firefighters?

This is a real personal project. Because I am so concerned about firefighter safety, I thought that if there's a little thing that we can do that's going to make a difference and maybe save one guy's life, let's do it. We raised about $750,000 from private sources on the outside through our Fire Safety Institute to equip every firefighter with an integrated PASS alarm.

The department is testing Nomex hoods, as well as the SmartCoat System. Could you comment on those?

The hoods have been slow in being utilized in the department, but we're no longer testing them - everybody's been issued a hood.

I think the department made a mistake several years ago by putting the word out that a wet hood was unsafe. We've recently done some new studies that show that whether you have a wet hood or a dry hood, you are still seven times better off wearing a hood. And that's the message we want to get to the guys. The burns we're getting are on ears and on the neck. We're never going to see burns disappear, but if the guys would just wear the hoods, it would make even a greater difference.

The SmartCoat is still out there as a pilot program (see Tools, Techniques & Innovations, September 1998).

What is the status of burn injuries in the department?

Serious burns, where we see people hospitalized, are down. I hate to use a number, but I think it's 90 percent. Burns with heavy grafts that keep a firefighter in the hospital for two months are almost nonexistent, thank goodness.

There's always a question about dual notification. The city came out with a plan to designate the police to be in charge of certain incidents and the fire department to be in charge of certain incidents. What is your feeling on the the departments working together and on dual notification?

It's much, much better than it ever was. Police Commissioner (Howard) Safir's relationship with the fire department and our ability to work together is at a greater level than it has ever been in the past. (Editor's note: Safir preceded Von Essen as fire commissioner.) We still run into times when ESU (police emergency service units) or fire rescue will be arguing whether or not someone is particularly in charge. Those situations are really at a minimum.

The firefighters and the police officers in the street are working very well together. We do get isolated incidents where personalities come into play, but the fact that the Office of Emergency Management from the mayor's office has made a big difference in trying to focus on who is really in charge of particular incidents. We're in much better shape than we ever were.

The Phoenix Fire Department and the FDNY have exchanged firefighters. Can you tell us how that program came about and how it benefits the departments?

It came about just from a casual conversation that (Phoenix Chief) Alan Brunacini and I were having. We were talking about things that we were both doing and I said, "Why don't we switch firefighters and see what happens?" And he immediately said, "That's great. Let's do it." We both checked with our lawyers - they said it would be OK, so we did it.

I picked a guy from an active company in Harlem who is a supporter of the department, an active supporter of the union and an honest, intelligent kid. He went out there, he came back, he wrote some reports, went to union meetings, told the guys what's true and what's not, what's so terrific in Phoenix, what's not so terrific. I think it was helpful as far as cutting down on some of the rumors that you always get in the field - rumors that things are this way here and that way there.

We're getting calls now from other cities that would like to participate. What's going to come from that? Let's say you get a chief who's interested in high-rise operations. I say send him. Let him come for a week, ride in Manhattan in the Ninth Battalion. Let him work days and nights or whatever, and then send him back. We can probably get more specific benefits from participation by people at a higher level, from the management side.

We've talked about exchanging experts in physical fitness or experts in other areas, particularly terrorism response, or in different areas where you can get somebody with a real skill. I think that's an area that we'll just grow in.

Fires and fire deaths in New York City are at a 38-year low for civilians. Is the department changing its priorities?

I can't say the priorities are changing. We've given a greater emphasis to something that we've been, I think, really weak in the past and that's preventing fires. We're committed to doing a better job of making sure that older people are aware of things that they should be. I can't think of a better $5 tool than a smoke detector. It's just amazing how important it is and how helpful it is, so we educate people on the significance of having batteries that work. I can't emphasize it enough.

The department's priorities have not changed, but we definitely are going to put a greater emphasis on trying to prevent fires than we ever did in the past.

Now that the EMS Bureau has been merged with FDNY, what has that meant to the citizens and also the FDNY's EMS employees? In particular, response time is always a critical factor.

Before the merger, EMS response time was nearly nine minutes for segment one, two and three, which are more serious problems. Since the merger, our response time for EMS is down to nearly seven, so there's almost a two-minute difference in just EMS' response time.

We have 209 fire engines that are carrying defibrillators with certified first responders on them. Their response times are around five minutes. If you combine the response time, we're getting somebody to you, either an EMT or a certified first responder, in around six minutes. You're either getting a fire engine at five or an EMS person or team at seven, so we're averaging around six minutes, which is an unbelievable improvement in response time for the person who really needs it.

The fire department, between EMS and fire, used the defibrillators 2,500 times last year. EMS used it 1,200 times or 1,300 times and the fire engines used it 1,200 times. That's phenomenal, the ability for us now to be able to give 400 people an opportunity to live that didn't have it before. We're going to continue to work to drive that response time down even further. Our long-term goal is to get advanced life support to people who really need it in a more effective fashion.

We need to figure out a way to not send so many resources to people who have sprained fingers or who have cramps. These ailments might appear serious to them, but they aren't, and we're sending a fire engine or we're having two paramedics arrive. We've got to do a better job of getting advanced life support to people who really need it and I think that we're on the right track.

To the EMS employees, I think that we've done a better job of making them feel that they're part of a terrific department. There are critics who will say, "They're lost in the fire department," but I don't think that's the case. They're a terrific group of people. They're raising their standards, their level of expertise, their training, their motivation. And we've improved that. We're trying to give the people who are out there on the street on these ambulances the best people to work with and the best fire department they can work for.

Do you have additional plans for new apparatus? Last year, you put in several brushfire units and there was talk of buying some fireboats. Anything specific? Do you continue to buy new apparatus as you need it?

We're doing pretty well. All our engines that are coming in now are air conditioned. We put brand-new pumpers in service before the summer, air conditioned, which is important. We're changing the ambulances every seven years now. They were in service for 10 years when they were with EMS.

As for fireboats, we're in the process of putting specs out to get one 120-footer or 100-footer and two 70-footers built on the style of the Kane because we've been very happy with the Kane.

Are there plans to expand the FDNY's role in hazmat and terrorism response? Are you going to give companies some additional responsibilities?

We just decided that we're going to establish eight squads instead of the two that we have right now. We're going to spread them out throughout the city. We're going to make them backup hazmat units. We're going to make them a mobile medical strike for terrorism and all the other things that we need them for. They're also going to respond to all-hands and I think that we'll have eight more units of people that are really ready to mobilize when we have disasters of that type.

How did the FDNY expand into nighttime training and who is involved?

This is another thing that I couldn't understand - why we never trained at night. How you could have a job as dangerous as ours and have a facility where nothing is going on at night, but not use it? It was mind-boggling for me. We just implemented it and it's been terrific. We even have probies training at night.

We bring out a first-alarm assignment every night. We bring out a chief. We bring out three engines and two trucks. We set up a scenario where we have some captains that we've used that think it's great to get people motivated in these things and use them, rather than just forcing people to do it. They're motivated. They tell the guys "OK, pull up, you've got a fire and it's in a one-story commercial and you've got a report of somebody in the back room or in the basement," and they go through that fire. They have smoke and it's terrific. It's been great training for a lot of people who think they're really up on all their skills, but aren't.

We also set up a roof out there. One of the ladder companies will practice cutting holes in the roof. And we have smoke coming up there, so they can't see what they're doing. We try to have the same conditions as you would have in a fire and that's been very helpful also. We started another thing too - we do a search drill.

Please explain the probationary rotation program.

FDNY Photo Unit
Von Essen, left, says he responds to all third alarms and special emergencies. "I try to get inside, if I can, to see what's going on on the fire floor. And I do it to understand what everybody's dealing with."

It's the active companies that everybody wants to go to, but what's happening is that at the less active companies nobody's getting any experience at all, so I decided to make everybody get at least some (experience in busy companies). Some of the officers hate it because they're constantly getting new people, but that's the job. I think of the good bosses out there and everybody's job is to train.

Now you get a kid, he's there for a year and you lose him, but that's your job. You've maybe made him a better firefighter and you might have saved his life five years from now if he's working in a less active company that doesn't get the opportunity to train and practice as much as some units. Now he's got to remember something that he learned that year that he spent in a more active company. The fact that you've got three times as many people going through the more active companies is very positive for safety.

They go to three different types of companies. The idea is to go to A, B or C and it's determined by the amount of activity, the amount of fires, the building construction, the locations, everything else. They do a year in each. And then they go back to their first company. That's their permanent company.

The department has begun using a building at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for truck company search operations. What do they do?

When I became commissioner, I was bringing in battalion chiefs every day, five chiefs. I asked them, "What are the problems out there?" They would all tell me that there are no more vacant buildings, there's no place to go and practice.

So I said, "Well, let's find some buildings that aren't vacant or maybe they are vacant, but they're controlled va-cants." Somebody told me there are some buildings over in the Navy Yard. We went over there. We asked them if we could use a building. They said we could. It's in great shape. It's vacant, but it's in good shape. We just couldn't use water. We couldn't start any fires. We couldn't destroy it, but it was perfect for doing search operations.

FDNY Photo Unit
Von Essen, center, confers with chief officers at the scene of a fire. "We've been doing a lot of training for the chiefs…We're trying to give them as much training as we can."

We closed some doors and ran some lines, and now we fill it up with smoke, make it dark, and we can clear the smoke out right away. We take the firefighters back through and they said, "See that? You thought that was a doorway, but it's an elevator shaft. If you had pushed, taken another step, you would have gone down four flights," that type of thing. It's been very helpful as far as safety.

In the last several years, special schools have been made available to rescue companies. Will that continue?

The rescue units in this department are just a fantastic group of really highly motivated, tremendously skilled firefighters and I intend to continue all the extra training that they get.

Many fire chiefs have retired recently, and the new chiefs have had extra training. Will you continue to provide that special training for the chiefs?

We've been doing a lot of training for the chiefs. We bring three or four of them down to headquarters every night for fire simulations, which is really making a difference in the field. We're trying to give them as much training as we can out of the Division Of Training.

We just had a tour of the new headquarters. We visited the TV studio, the "war room" and some other special areas. Any other specifics that make this place really impressive?

I think the medical office being here is a big plus for the guys. We got all new equipment, all new X-ray machines and we're going to have physical therapy here in the building. We have an orthopedist now almost every day. That means that a guy won't have to wait two weeks to see an orthopedist if he's got a ligament injury that, you know, you have to do something about right away - either start therapy right away or see an orthopedist right away, or get an operation. That, I think, is better service to the firefighters. The physical therapy is a big piece. The studio, the auditorium, the control center, the war room - that's pretty much the sexy stuff here in the new building.

Many of the city's firehouses date back to the 1800s. The department is renovating several houses. Are there plans to build any new stations or to move companies, for example, to other parts of a borough?

We have, first of all, renovations. We have a terrific program of doing design builds, where we take five or six firehouses, relocate the guys for a year and completely redo the building. That's like having a new firehouse. We've applied for more money from the city. It's about $40 million to do another 15 firehouses or so. I hope we get that. We don't have that resolved yet.

There's only one new firehouse in the works. That's 75 and 33 in the Bronx. That should be opened, I think, in a year and a half. They've finished the design. We're working on fine-tuning some changes, then they'll go out for bids and they'll start construction.

We attended the opening of the fire safety education center at the Fire Museum in Manhattan and you said you want to put one into each borough.

We haven't found the locations yet. But it is in the works and it will happen.

That's to teach young schoolchildren? Do you have a lot of schoolchildren coming through the center?

When I was in Indianapolis, I videotaped the one they have out there; I like the design even better than the one we did at the museum, but we were limited to the amount of space. We just filled the courtyard and did what we could. The one in Indianapolis is designed like a top floor of a firehouse so you now have a lot to work with. They made a courtyard and an outside telephone and I think that there's a lot you can do. And I think we'll be able to do that in each borough. We'll do one at Fort Totten. Kids can go out there and picnic and maybe sit by the water. It will be great. And we'll find some places here in Brooklyn and other places in Manhattan. I would hope that before I'm gone we get another five of them in operation.

You made a point that day about not only having the kids go through, but also older people. It goes back to what you said before about training people.

Big problem. For senior citizens we really have to do a better job. It's just different than it was when I was a kid. I mean, when I was a kid your mother was home. Society's different today. You don't have a young mother watching the kids. You've got maybe a 70-, 80-year-old person who's now watching grandchildren and everything else and you got to make them aware that you can't put aluminum in microwaves, you can't overload sockets and you can't forget about water on the stove. We just have to do a better job. We've been reaching out to a lot of senior citizen centers and doing a much better job than we ever did.

Tell us about your policies and procedures for newly promoted officers.

What I'm going to do is take the guys from the busy companies and when they get promoted, we're going to make them cover out in companies where there's less fire duty. Some people aren't happy about that, but I think that's a terrific way to share all these terrific guys who get promoted. And it's going to work.

That's going to take some time, but we'll see a difference as time goes by. They can cover in these slower areas for a couple of years and then they'll still have the same opportunity to get back to the other, more active areas, later on. And maybe hopefully some of them will want to stay out there. And that will begin to upgrade the safety in these less active areas.

How about lieutenant to captain? Do a lot of these newly promoted officers come to headquarters?

We have a captain's manager program which is really a terrific program - it's expensive - where we actually take 40 captains and don't send them out in the field right away. We keep them off the line. It's supposed to be for a year, but it's really not. Nobody's been spending more than six or seven or eight months off the line.

We teach them how to work computers. We teach them how to do operational things, how the department really works, how the budget system works. They'll do projects for us and you'll have a captain help you do the plans for the new firehouse, get his input. We have 10 of them now doing the training I talked about, the night training. We have them going around to firehouses doing drills with laptop computers. They're helping us fill a void and they're also getting a lot of extra training which will make them better chiefs later on for those who go forward.

What about the mentoring program for a captain who is about to become a battalion chief?

When we were trying to figure out ways to pick the brains of our really good battalion chiefs, this was one of the suggestions - we would take a captain who was close to being promoted to battalion chief and, before he gets promoted, have him go and ride with a battalion chief for 90 days. It's 90 days to make sure that he's exposed to the chief at a fire. Take a guy like (Battalion Chief) Tommy Kennedy, now you work with him in a fire and you watch him, you see what he does, you go with him, you sit with him in the office. He's going to bombard you with questions and you can really benefit from him as a mentor. There are a lot of terrific chiefs out there, but the ones we picked are some of the best.

Editor's note: After this interview was conducted, three New York City firefighters died in the line of duty. Two were killed in a collapse of a burning building and one died of a heart attack at the scene of a fire.