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Ground Zero 9-1-1: FDNY Communications on September 11th
Author: Frank Raffa, FDNY Comms
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.
Everyone carries around with them dates that they will never forget. For me there are two that will forever be etched in memory above all others: February 26, 1993, and September 11, 2001. The former was the day of the World Trade Center basement bombing, the second was the terrible day when what was attempted in 1993 came to pass. I happened to be in the thick of it on both occasions.
On September 11th, I was in Manhattan for Primary Day. I had volunteered to help candidates my union endorsed. I arrived at my union office to see the doorman watching TV. On the screen was something I never imagined would happen. A plane had slammed into #1 World Trade Center (WTC). I stared in amazement as massive flames and profuse black smoke engulfed the upper floors. I knew in an instant that I had to get to the Manhattan central office (CO). They were going to need help.
I walked into the Manhattan CO around 0940 hours and a feeling of déjà vu hit me square in the face. By this time the second plane had hit #2 WTC. All the phone lines were lit. Our alarm receipt dispatchers were inundated with frantic callers who were trapped above the crash site with no way to get out. I could see in the dispatcher's faces the feeling of helplessness they had to bear. Fortunately the dispatchers who worked the night before all stayed on to help out. This gave us enough personnel to give a break to anyone who needed it. Out two deputy directors of communications, both former dispatchers from the 70's, they took charge and tried to keep the office under control.
The incident commander asked for a second alarm over and above the two 5th alarms that had already been transmitted. With most of the lower half of Manhattan stripped for companies, I was given the task of calling Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens to get companies for relocation and response to the scene. This proved to be frustrating as it took a long time to get a dial tone. When I finally did get the tone, the number I called was busy. I tried using the 800 MHz trunk radio that all COs have only to be greeted with a busy signal on that system too. Eventually I was able to complete the task.
That’s when the situation went from bad to worse. "Marine 6 to Manhattan! The south tower is collapsing!" We all stared at the radio in disbelief. "Manhattan calling Field Comm…” No response. “Manhattan calling any chief at the Trade Center. . . " Silence. The TV wasn’t on so we didn’t have an idea what was really happening. Did just the top of the building fall off? Maybe. Did it topple over like a 1,200-foot domino? That couldn’t happen, could it?
With the collapse, a huge dust cloud rose over lower Manhattan. Visibility went down to zero. Brooklyn units that had come to Manhattan via the Battery Tunnel were stopped dead in their tracks. Personnel had to use SCBA just to be able to breathe. On the Brooklyn side, the radio dispatcher redirected all units going to Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge. By this time all bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed to all but emergency vehicles. Less than half an hour later this entire scenario played itself out again as 1 WTC fell.
The Field Comm unit is quartered with E207 in Brooklyn and is dispatched citywide on all greater alarms. The unit is staffed with two dispatchers and a field lieutenant. Three vehicles are available to this unit: a 1985 Mack heavy truck, a newer 1999 Freightliner van, and an older truck. The latter was taken to the WTC and became a victim of the collapse. Somehow, however, Field Comm staff managed to gather enough equipment to set up a makeshift command center despite the fact that one of their members was unaccounted for. What they needed most were additional units. The Department instituted off duty recall and went to a 24-hour on/24-hour off schedule for firefighters. All surplus firefighters staffed spare apparatus; anyone left over went to a rendezvous point to wait for assignment to the WTC.
As thousands of rescuers scoured Ground Zero in desperate attempts to rescue personnel and civilians from the immense rubble, we in the central offices were left with the unenviable task of trying to maintain fire coverage throughout the rest of the city. Just under 50% of the department’s entire resources were now deployed to the scene, resulting in many vacant firehouses. We tried as best we could to rearrange the few companies that were left. In addition to our dispatch staff, we also had our electricians and computer techs on hand, prepared to support us in the event of a power or computer failure.
As the day wore on, activity in the office began slowly to ebb; but the phones continued to ring. Relatives, spouses, and neighbors seeking information about their loved ones poured in. As before, our alarm receipt dispatchers had to bear the brunt of emotions coming from the phone lines. The missing Field Comm dispatcher was found, safe and uninjured. But hundreds of our firefighters and command staff were still missing and presumably buried beneath the ruined towers.
The Manhattan Central Office - one of five FDNY's dispatch centers located in each of the city's boroughs. Manhattan CO faced the brunt of the fire communications activity on September 11th, 2001.
I had to be in Brooklyn for the next shift so I went home at 2200 hours. Manhattan was strangely quiet. The streets were deserted. Times Square, normally bustling with activity, was a ghost town. Police were everywhere. As I entered the subway my imagination started acting up. What if there’s a bomb on the train? What if they’ve planted something in the tunnel? What if the train operator is a terrorist?
You can’t live your life by “what ifs.” The imagination is a powerful tool but it also can work to your detriment by controlling your actions. There may be times when this is justified. This is not one of them, I told myself. These people can strike anywhere at any time. There’s no way to predict when or where they will perpetrate their cowardly deeds. I can’t lock myself in a closet; life must go on.
In Brooklyn the next day, station coverage was poor. Over 40% of our resources were in Manhattan. Many pieces of apparatus were damaged or destroyed by the collapse. To fill the gaps we received something we’d never seen before: mutual aid. Fire departments from all over New Jersey came to Staten Island and Brooklyn to help, and departments from Long Island sent mutual aid to Queens.
There were only two problems with this. These units did not have the ability to hook up to city hydrants, and they did not have radios capable of operating on our frequencies. To solve the radio problem we assigned them to firehouses where we had one of our units in service. They would then turn out as a team so that the New Jersey companies would have indirect radio contact.
There was nothing we could do about the hydrant problem so we made sure that there was at least one unit from FDNY going to every alarm. If a mutual aid company arrived first could at least deploy an extinguisher or use booster tank water till our own unit arrived. It wasn’t a perfect solution but it was enough. Fortunately there were no major fires.
By Thursday we started to get some of our rigs back from Manhattan and we let the New Jersey companies go home. We still were not up to 100% but we were at the point where we could manage on our own.
The bombing in 1993 was officially declared a 16-alarm incident and was the first time in 15 years that a borough call was transmitted (A borough call is an extra alarm transmitted in a separate borough. For example: rather than call for an additional 2nd alarm and wiping out Manhattan’s resources, the IC would have a different borough transmit a 2nd alarm and have those units come to his aid.) On September 11th, we had 16 alarms transmitted before the collapse. In 1993 FDNY maintained a presence at the WTC for 30 days. This time it’s going to be months before we leave the scene.
A week after September 11th, life in the central office is somewhat back to routine, save for the somber mood of the senior people. They knew many firefighters personally. But despite the heartache, life goes on. Fires continue to burn. People call 9-1-1. We have to send apparatus. Life goes on.
Frank Raffa has been a dispatcher with FDNY since May of 1992, working in Manhattan for two years before transferring to Brooklyn in 1994. He has been a supervisor in the Communications Office since 1998.
The Fire Department, City of New York, is dispatched out of five Central Offices (CO), one in each of the city’s five major boroughs (Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, The Bronx, and Brooklyn). Within each CO there are five separate and distinct functions performed by the dispatcher: alarm receipt, voice alarm, decision dispatcher, radio in, and radio out. Borough COs are responsible for dispatching anywhere from 19 stations (Staten Island) to 72 stations (Brooklyn). Manhattan has 54 stations and 95 units.
These COs are staffed by more than 180 fire alarm dispatchers who are civilian members of the FDNY (the COs have been civilianized since 1971). We work 12-hour tours on a 25 group rotating chart (including nights and holidays). Dispatchers don’t work 24-hour tours as there are no R&R facilities for them in the COs.
The Alarm Receipt Dispatchers (ARD's) answer incoming phone calls, including 9-1-1 tielines, direct dial lines, operator-assisted lines, and direct dial non-emergency lines. Additionally, there are an assortment of tielines from alarm companies, government agencies, transit dispatchers, bridges & tunnels, utility companies, and so on. Each ARD has a console that receives calls from call boxes. When the ARD takes all the information, the alarm is sent to the Decision Dispatcher (DD). There are three ARDs in Brooklyn & Manhattan, two in Queens and Bronx, and one on Staten Island.
When the alarm is presented to the DD, the CAD system recommends the nearest units. The DD decides if the alarm can be transmitted as the computer suggests, or if it should be changed in any way. When the DD releases the alarm, fire tickets start printing in the firehouses that are to turnout. If a firehouse's printer is off line, a "pick up" notification is sent to the Voice Alarm Dispatcher (VAD).
If a company is available on the air and their Mobile Data Terminal is offline, a "pick up" notification is sent to the radio. The DD is also responsible for making relocations (move-ups), and allowing for adequate response coverage. It should be noted that until the arrival of companies at the scene, the dispatcher serves as the Incident Commander. For this reason, he/she has the ability to assign additional or specialized units at his/her discretion.
The voice alarm is a public address system that connects the central office to every firehouse in the borough. It is the primary backup system to the CAD. The Voice Alarm Dispatcher can talk to a single house, multiple houses, a zone of houses, or speak overall. The VAD relays the alarm information to the concerned firehouses. If the CAD system is operating normally, and there are no offline printers, the VAD then acts as the primary dispatcher responsible for notifications. For example: all requests for police, EMS, or utility companies would be performed by the VAD. When CAD is offline, notifications are done by an ARD.
The radio is staffed by two dispatchers, one called Radio Out, and the other called Radio In. The RO does the talking while the RI documents radio transmissions and other data into the CAD.