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NYC 9-1-1: The Eye Of The Storm

Author: Charles F. Dowd, Commanding Officer, NYPD Communications Section

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue. 

On March 25th, 2001, the New York City Police Department’s Communications Section arrived at a milestone.  On that day, our 9-1-1 Center received its 250,000,000th call for service since being established in 1969.   This was just one of the many achievements that were scheduled to be celebrated on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  Our 9-1-1 day ceremony was suddenly forgotten, however, in the face of the greatest crisis ever encountered by the combined emergency services of the city of New York.   By the end of the day, our 9-1-1 personnel had been tested beyond anyone’s expectations, and came through that test in the finest tradition of both the New York City Police Department and emergency call taking personnel everywhere.

I arrived at the center approximately five minutes after the first plane had struck and at that point there was little credible information regarding the size of the plane or damage estimates from the scene.  No matter, our personnel had already sprung into action putting our major incident plan into effect.  Administrative and training personnel not normally involved in call taking operations were already on the floor, staffing any available call taking positions in an effort to keep up with the flood of calls now coming in.  The operational staff began to make calls to off-duty personnel to report to work, which turned out not to be necessary, as off duty and even retired personnel were calling in to volunteer to help staff the phones and to assist in police dispatching, our other critical function.  

The calls we were beginning to receive were, as any emergency call taker knows, the toughest one can receive – people trapped in a burning building.  And it was not just any building, it was the World Trade Center; it was not just a couple of people involved, it was thousands. The trauma and distress were overwhelming. The first call had come in at 8:48 AM, and in the next 13 minutes we received close to 3,000 calls. The effort was being made to track where all these victims were located in an attempt to assist in the rescue effort. NYPD Police Communications Technicians (PCTs) were attempting to connect all of those trapped with Fire Department dispatchers, who then relayed that information to fire personnel on the scene. As the first building fell and the enormity of what was happening began to set in, our operators continued to be the calm voice on the telephone for the panicked people trapped in the remaining tower. 

The calltaking room of the New York Police Department 9-1-1 Center.  The nation’s largest PSAP was Ground Zero for the emergency calls emanating from the World Trade Center on September 11th. Photo by Jim Butler/NYPD

Our dispatchers continued to help direct the rescue efforts, all the while being aware of the danger being faced by the units with whom they worked every day.  The collapse of the second tower and subsequent building collapses during that day showed the true character of our staff.  They were in many cases the last voices heard by the innocent victims trapped on upper floors with no hope of escape, the calming voices directing the rescuers who attempted to find the hundreds of trapped rescue workers, some of whom entered the second tower after surviving the collapse of the first.  By the end of that unforgettable day, we had received over 55,000 calls, easily eclipsing the previous one-day record.  All during the attack and the aftermath, the PCTs were well aware of the reality that many governmental buildings were being evacuated. In the face of this obvious threat, and while handling some the most stressful calls imaginable, they stayed at their posts continuing to try and help callers, while dispatchers, NYPD, FDNY, and Port Authority Police Dispatch, continued to help to attempt to locate emergency personnel that had been trapped in the collapse. I could not have been more proud of our call takers and dispatchers.  Their courage and perseverance in the face of this crisis was inspiring.

Our on-site Employee Assistance Unit (EAU) immediately went into action, ensuring that our personnel showing signs of stress were immediately attended to. Over the two weeks following the attack, our EAU and Training Unit, in cooperation with the Police Department’s Medical Division and District Counsel 37 (the PCT’s union), ensured that crisis counselors were on site to ensure that anyone needing counseling received it.  Our Training Unit set up a 24-hour “canteen” where our people could come to eat and talk informally. This was a great way to help to discreetly identify those who where having problems coping, so that they could be offered counseling services.

Physical security for the PSAC was also a concern.  The security perimeter was immediately expanded using anything available. A local construction site provided large trailers containing massive prefabricated concrete sections, which were placed to protect the call taking and dispatch areas of the building.  Additional uniformed police personnel were assigned to ensure that the PSAC was protected as we initiated our “Omega” security plan, which is our highest state of alert.  These actions were a source of reassurance for our personnel. We immediately established revised security protocols for PCTs as well as on site vendors such as Verizon, our E-9-1-1 service provider, Motorola, and iXP, our PSAP software provider.  All of these companies played a critical role in ensuring that 9-1-1 stayed online to serve the public through this City’s time of greatest need.

View from Metrotech: Smoke erupts from the collapse of the both World Trade Center towers, as seen from the roof of the NYPD 9-1-1 building on September 11th.  Photo by Chris Stone

The level of support for our personnel has been fantastic.  On the Sunday after the attack, the Mayor of the City of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, visited the center and shook hands with every person on duty thanking them for the job they had done. The flood of cards, flowers, letters, and gifts from other communication centers that continue to pour in from all over the United States and the world has been a tremendous source of morale and emotional support to all of us.  Over two hundred and fifty communications centers have sent such messages of support. They have come from as far away as Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. We have had visits from other agencies such as the Philadelphia PD, Portland Oregon PD, and the California Highway Patrol.  It is important for everyone to know just how much the show of support means to us all.  Please remember in your support the Fire and Emergency Medical Dispatchers, as well as Port Authority Police dispatchers, all of whom were affected by this tragedy.  Our thanks go out to 9-1-1 personnel everywhere.  God bless you and God Bless the United States of America.

Charles F. Dowd is a 22-year veteran of the New York Police Dept.  As Commanding Officer of the Communications Section (consisting of over 1,200 members), he is responsible for the New York City 9-1-1 System as well as the Police Department’s radio dispatch operation.  He is the former C.O. of several commands, including the 88th and 77th Precincts, and, as a Lieutenant, the 79th Precinct Detective Squad, all located in Brooklyn.

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