Firehouse Interview: FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen

Firehouse Magazine editors interview the head of the nation's biggest fire department.


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...


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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.

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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.

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