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ICS at Ground Zero: Incident Management Teams in NYC

Author: Kelly Andersson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue.

Just when you think you have the Incident Command System figured out, and you know how you fit into an incident management team, you get a monster called Manhattan.

The events of September 11 caused unimaginable horror to millions of people across the country, unimaginable trauma to tens of thousands of New York and Washington, D.C. residents, and unimaginable grief to thousands of emergency personnel in those two cities. Unimaginable challenges were also faced by teams of interagency professionals who usually deal with wildland fire.

There are 16 national Type 1 Incident Management Teams (IMTs) across the country. Though they mostly deal with wildland fire, they're also dispatched for non-fire incidents such as floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. One of FEMA's 12 emergency support functions is firefighting, and under ESF-4 the teams can be activated from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

The teams are prepared to use the Incident Command System (ICS) to handle just about any situation. But no one was prepared for an incident like the one in September 2001.

Manhattan: September 28, 2001 -- A view of the recovery operation underway from a roof adjacent to the World Trade Center. Photo: Andrea Booher/ FEMA News Photo

The first teams sent back to New York found it rough going. Though there's an unofficial fraternity akin to family within the fire and emergency response community, it pales in comparison to that of the New York City Fire Department. Brothers, uncles, dads, granddads -- generations of firefighters are members of FDNY. In a lot of ways, this was their disaster. They were searching for family members in the rubble of what was left of the twin towers, and no one was going to tell them they couldn't.

The national IMTs are trained for – and accustomed to – arriving on an incident, setting up plans, operations, safety, communications, finance, and all the ICS sections needed to handle an incident and turning chaos back into normalcy. Not this time. Finance folks ran without guidelines, safety folks were in a world like no other, and information officers were forbidden to speak with the media.

Definitely not business as usual.

Don Ferguson, who works in real life as natural resources staff administrator for the BLM in Medford, Oregon, is also a Type 1 Incident Information Officer on a national team. He and the rest of his Pacific Northwest team, headed up by Incident Commander Joe Stutler, spent two weeks assisting with the aftermath. They found that ICS in a lot of ways wasn't prepared to deal with an incident like this, but they also found that the team itself was even more skilled and flexible than they'd thought.

"We had our operations base set up about 20 miles southwest of Manhattan," says Ferguson, "but we went in to Manhattan to work with the other team. We were but a tiny little part of it. It was a really different way to manage information than what I'm used to."

As information officer on the team, Ferguson is used to handling the internal and external information flow, working with the media and affected communities. "One of the reasons for a national team is the community impact," he says. "The information officers are responsible for establishing that liaison between the team and the community."

US&R member from MA1 (Massachusetts) discuss a search plan with FDNY chiefs on September 13th.  Andrea Booher/ FEMA News Photo

Cathie Schmidlin, a public affairs officer on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona, is also an information officer on a national team. She was in Flagstaff on September 11 when she got the call to go to New York. "This was about 9 AM  mountain time," says Schmidlin, "and I went home, gathered up my fire pack, and we left for Albuquerque. Nothing like this had ever happened before. There was a lot of apprehension. We were glad we were going, but not so happy about the prospect of what was ahead of us."

The team waited at the mobilization center in Albuquerque for a flight. "We were told we'd have a chartered plane to take us to the East Coast," says Schmidlin. "The charter also had a team from California headed to the Pentagon, and NIFC was getting the permission from NORAD to fly. The plane came in about 4 AM  and we were all headed for the East Coast."

"The sun was coming up as we approached the Baltimore airspace," recalls Schmidlin. "The pilot came on and said, 'For those of you who have been looking out the window, yes those are two F-16s escorting us in.' They were right off the wings, and all the while we were thinking, 'This is incredible.' There's no way to describe what it felt like to be the only plane besides military planes up in the skies. When we landed, all the ground crew were looking at us like, 'Who are you guys?'"

"As we were headed to Manhattan, we could see the smoke," says Schmidlin. "We went through the tunnel, and for many of us, that was our first time into New York City. Everyone was straining to see where the twin towers had been. Getting to the Jacob Javits Convention Center was amazing, with people lined up four abreast, just lining up to volunteer to help out in any way they could."

Back in Oregon, Ferguson got the call that his team might be activated. "We'd heard we were being pinged. FEMA had already assigned Steve Gage's California team to the Pentagon. One of the Southwest teams had been assigned to Jacob Javits, and they were still talking about sending another team."

They assembled at the air base in Redmond, Oregon, on the morning of September 12. "We got there," says Ferguson, "and then the word came in that FEMA wasn't going to use us and we should go home. So we scattered. Most of us were a half hour out of Redmond when all the cell phones went off, so we went back. The jet from NIFC got in just before midnight."

The NIFC jet approached McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey as the sun was coming up on September 13. "It was just amazing to not see any airplanes," says Ferguson. "There was nothing happening. We landed and headed for Edison, and we pulled up to the hotel in an Army bus. FEMA had rented a bunch of rooms there, and we took over their convention space and set up our Incident Command Post there. We rented a small fleet of vehicles, and got busy setting up radios and satellite phones, and setting up repeaters in the parking lot."

Arriving on the incident was like nothing any of the teams had ever experienced. No one on the scene seemed to know that the teams had been ordered, much less who they were and what they did. The teams, to their surprise, found that FDNY did not use ICS in disaster management; apparently, the department had staff trained in ICS, but those people had died in the WTC towers' collapse. Help from outside could help, but outsiders were outsiders, and entry – personally or administratively – wasn't going to happen fast.

The assignment was unimaginably different and difficult for the teams. "It was heartbreaking," says Ferguson. "It was just a heartache. You don't get that sense of heartbreak from going to a wildfire. Fires are humans versus nature. That's pretty straightforward."

Much of the difficulty, according to team members, was the ways in which it was different from a typical assignment. There was no delegation of authority, no clear set of objectives, no opportunity to participate in unified command. A fire that burns from a national park onto an Indian reservation would involve the National Park Service and the BIA and the local tribe. They'd get together, give the team a delegation of authority and a fiscal cap, and outline some objectives for containment of the fire.

"We usually get marching orders," says Ferguson. "Well, none of that happened when we got to New York. We had no clear connection with FEMA, and we were strangers in a strange land."

Ferguson explains that the teams had a delegation from FEMA to provide a receiving and distribution center to support the Urban Search & Rescue operations at ground zero. "They pretty much said, 'Go find a warehouse and people to staff it. We can't tell you how much to spend or not spend or how fast it has to get up and running.'  So we had to kind of rewrite the rules."

Ferguson says the assignment was a good test for the team and its function, to find out how much you can warp the model and still recognize it. "Finance was pretty crippled," he says, "because our accountability and caps were never established. Information was being handled by the local agencies. All of us at one time or another felt like we were being repelled by one barrier after another."

"It's much more typical that they give you the keys to the kingdom," jokes Ferguson. "They want you to just take care of it. And we were having to persuade people to let us in and let us go to work."

In the normal course of an assignment, a team orders up resources for assistance. Some of those ordered for this incident, though, couldn't handle it. "We had to send some back home," says Schmidlin. "Not many, just a few, but it was because of the realization of those folks that maybe they couldn't do that job. You wouldn't know it until you actually got there."

As people checked in, the team would make sure they got out to the site – the Pile, as it was called. "That gave people an idea whether they'd be able to work there or not," says Schmidlin. "Everyone who responded and came back there, first and foremost, they wanted to be there; they felt it was a privilege to be there and do whatever they could."

Schmidlin and the rest of the Southwest team were there till October 14.

Before they left, some of the members of FDNY said they'd like to shadow a national team on an incident during the 2002 season. "They thought it would give them a fuller appreciation for ICS and an IMT," says Schmidlin. "We're hopeful it will happen."

"We told them, 'We've seen what you do and we're in awe. Here's what we do, and what you saw is just a little part of it.' We realized that flexibility is the name of the game," says Schmidlin. "No one had ever been through this, and the federal agencies who do wildland fire have never faced an incident like FDNY did, where we've lost so many of our own. How would we feel if we'd lost that many on a fire, and then people we didn't know were coming into the incident?  Not just the uniforms, but also the civilians who were lost. It was horrendous."

Ferguson's background with ICS – he's been involved every year since his first fire in 1969 – served him well on the assignment. "My experience with the teams has given me an understanding of team behavior dynamics under stress," he says. "It's some simple precepts, really, of training together to do the difficult stuff today and put off the impossible till tomorrow. Some days it'll really grind you up, but on a team, other people will stand up and support you. Not everyone has a flat tire on the same day. That gives me faith that I'll be working with a versatile, adaptable, and aware group of people."

"It comes down to situational awareness, adaptability, backing behavior, and feedback," he says. "Leave your ego at the door, and plan on giving and getting feedback. As a team member, you're aware of other members' needs – and if they stumble, your backing behavior is to do their job for them or check on them all the time. After being out for 70 days this summer, our team members found we were practicing some form of that all the time."

NYC Lessons Learned: Incident Management Teams

Points compiled by IMT members after the New York City assignments, suggestions for those familiar with ICS who find themselves dealing with a national security incident:

  • Don't expect it to be normal. It'll be unlike anything you've ever experienced.
  • Flexibility is vital.
  • Roles and rules change constantly.
  • Keeping team members informed is important.
  • Expect short tempers. Keep yours in check.
  • Expect sensory affronts - unusual and offensive sights, sounds and smells.
  • In anticipation of future assignments, the incident commanders also recommended that team members get vaccinations and passports.

For More Information:

FDNY is online at:

Most of the national IMTs are online at:


Kelly Andersson has written on forest management and wildlife issues, natural resources policy and politics, and big game hunting and flyfishing. Kelly is the editor of Wildfire News, which is available online at




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