Bravery Is Never Enough

As we approach the first anniversary of the murderous attacks upon our nation, I believe the time has come to reflect upon some of the important lessons that have been identified in the past year. You may all remember that I refused to second-guess the...

The report also states that far too many high-level fire officials went to the incident, many without a defined role to play. Think about it gang, we all want to make the "big one" when it happens in our town. In many cases we perform just like the moth that is classically known for being attracted to the flame. We need to specify who attends and who staffs the emergency operations center at a location distant from the emergency.

Perhaps one thing among others stands out as an event similar to many that I had experienced over the years. On page eight of the report’s Executive Summary, it makes reference to the fact that when the WTC 2 collapsed, the battalion chief at the WTC 1 operations command post issued an evacuation order over his portable radio. Given the history of portable radios in high-rise operations, many fire personnel never heard that message.

Every one of us that has worked in a major, metropolitan city has their litany of stories about how bad the operational capabilities of their radios always were in certain places, and at certain times. The same holds true for those of us who perform our lifesaving duties in suburban and rural areas. You just cannot use our current generation of portable radios in any building filled with masses of structural steel and concrete.

Let us work to improve the system and not deride the deceased. Let us remind the world that certain problems existed before September 11, 2001. I know that they have been well documented, for I have harped on them for many years now. I also look to my hero when it comes to high-rise firefighting and structural collapse issues.

The written record of retired Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn of the FDNY lays out the problems inherent in any high-rise situation. I can recall any number of articles that he created over the years which told us the story of our problems in a most convincing manner. They were convincing for us in the fire service, but our politicians and the general public didn’t seem to care.

On May 11, 2002, Chief Dunn sent a particularly strong letter to Mr. Tom Ridge, the President’s homeland security advisor. He spoke of the critical need for such things as:

  1. A portable radio that will work in a high-rise building.
  2. A smart turnout coat to warn firefighters when the temperature rises to an unsafe level
  3. A system to track firefighters in buildings
  4. Devices to detect potential collapse scenarios
  5. Helicopters and better fireboats for major cities
  6. Better self-contained breathing apparatus
  7. Better elevators for fire department use
  8. Computerized virtual reality training systems for fire command personnel
  9. Robot firefighters - Just like there are robot bomb disposal units

Let me state for the record that I strongly support Chief Dunn in his efforts to improve the technology that supports our firefighters in their critical battles. My question is simple. If we can talk to the astronauts out in space, how come my Deputy Chief and I could never talk to each other in the high-rise buildings in the City of Newark, New Jersey? We have been bitching about radio performance since I was a young rookie hanging off of the back of a pumper in the 1960’s.

The military now has system that can tell the military commander where his troops are on the battlefield. How come I cannot track my troops in a two-story residential house?

Far too many people do not take training seriously. I want you to know that I speak not only of skill level training. The command staffs of our fire departments must conduct command post exercises to insure that the necessary operational support system is in place, well-drilled, and functioning when they are needed. This element was also addressed in the McKinsey Report.

This whole situation with regard to structural issues at the World Trade Center incident is going to be particularly difficult to assess. It is an issue unto itself. We must remember that It is the sheer uniqueness of the event that makes it hard to generalize the potential for changes in large-scale operations.

I want to strongly suggest to you all that it is the actual performance of the structure itself during the incident that raises many questions. Many critical lessons for future code changes must, of necessity, come out the investigations being done by various engineering and architectural groups. There has to be a better way to build these big buildings.