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Middletown Township Comm Van Supports EMS Response
Author: Skip Trudo
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
NJ Field Communications on September 11th
Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.
As the EMS community in Monmouth County (NJ) prepared to receive the casualties evacuating from New York City in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, the Field Comm unit from Middletown was requested to support the operation. As Field Comm Captain, I would deploy the unit, a 35-foot truck, built by Lynch Diversified Vehicles and purchased several years ago as a joint effort of the police and fire departments, and the city Office of Emergency Management. It is equipped to communicate with every police and fire agency in Monmouth County by 2-way radio, and have a cellular phone system with 15 extensions in and outside the truck.
The crew for the Field Comm Unit is normally paged by the Fire Department paging system, backed up with an 800 number telephone pager that has statewide coverage, but the phone system was jammed by the volume of calls about the incident, rendering most of the pagers ineffective in recalling our members, who were at their regular jobs some distance away.
As I arrived in Atlantic Highlands with one other member of the Unit, “Bud” Midose, I was met by Sgt. Mike Lee of the Atlantic Highlands PD. He said the ferry companies were estimating “many thousand” people would be coming to Atlantic Highlands and Highlands. Many were expected to be injured, some severely. His one-person dispatch center was already being stretched by the volume of calls. They had recalled another dispatcher to help answer the questions of people calling about their loved ones. We set up the van about 50 yards from the ferry pier, directly in front of the ferry company office. As I looked out the windshield, I could see the Twin Towers directly in front of me, along with a huge plume of black smoke blowing eastward out over the ocean and Long Island. I thought, “We are going to be here for a long time.”
Middletown Police Sgt. Fred Deickmann assigned a patrolman to secure a perimeter around the truck, and deny access to anyone that was not approved by us. This turned out to be one of the best things we did all day. A patrolman named Micallizzi, who had responded from off duty, worked 16 hours nonstop (as we all did), firmly but politely denying access to firefighters, cops, politician,s and anyone else not on our list of essential Communications people. The fire department issued photo-ID tags to involved personnel, which was a great help in maintaining security of the operation.
Middletown EMS Captain Larry Schachtel became the EMS group supervisor, and quickly staffed the positions of EMS Operations and EMS Staging under his leadership. He was assigned the Command Room in the truck, since his activities figured to be the largest part of what we were going to be doing.
Incident Commander, Atlantic Highlands Police Chief Jerry Vasto, also took on the role of Public Information Officer, taking that strain off the dispatch and the Communications Unit. Middletown Captain Shaffery served as Liaison Officer between the two police departments. Logistics and Planning positions were filled by Middletown Deputy Chief Kevin Kane, and 2nd Assistant Chief Bill Hibell, respectively.
Field Comm, the 35-foot mobile communications unit from Middletown Township in New Jersey became the central point for EMS units triaging the exocus of injured people arriving on the New Jersey shore from New York.
In the Comm Unit, we were joined by Firefighter Eric Tantarelli, who had left his civilian job to see if he could help. He was assigned to maintain the incident log. We had an evaluation copy of Fieldsoft’s FDonScene, an ICS personnel accountability software product, which proved to be a geat asset. Eric recorded everything for the next 14 hours, taking only one (forced) dinner break! We eventually had 19 single-spaced pages of time-stamped, chronological log. Lesson Learned: Don’t try to reconstruct the single biggest day of your career by memory. Have a good scribe and a good computer program.
Just as we thought we were getting a handle on the numbers and types of casualties we could expect from the twin towers, we heard, “The south building just collapsed.” I immediately looked out the windshield, and what had looked like a huge burning candle was now completely shrouded in smoke and dust. In what seemed like only seconds, it was reported that the second building had collapsed, and we got the report about the Pentagon being hit, and rumors of another plane being hijacked in Pennsylvania. Now, looking out to the left side of the Communications truck, about 2 miles away, was the pier for the Naval Weapons Station Earle, where ammunition and other explosives were taken by rail to the port to be loaded on US Navy ships. Could this also be a target? Were we a target? The number of potential injuries had just changed, but we didn’t yet know if it went up, or down.
Normally, we communicate with the NWS Earle Fire Department on the Middletown Fire Dispatch Frequency. The Navy has always been reluctant to let us use their own fire department channel. I wanted a clear net between us, so I contacted Monmouth County and requested that County Fire 4 be allocated to us for this purpose. Permission was granted for us to use this mutual channel. This worked well for several hours. Unfortunately, as the day wore on, many other agencies started using what they thought was a “quiet” channel, so it became almost impossible for us to use this net after about noon. We had to fall back upon our Middletown Fire Dispatch to communicate with NWS Earle.
The victims were being routed into Highlands, NJ – the terminal there has no sea wall to navigate around so the round trip could be made faster than if the boats came into Atlantic Highlands. The ferries (high speed Catamarans that normally hold 350 people) were making the round trips as fast as they could be filled in NYC and off-loaded in New Jersey. One of the local oil companies had dispatched a truck and the ferries were being refueled right at their dock rather than going to a “gas dock.”
Middletown Fire Chief Doug Corbet placed all Middletown Volunteers on active standby, with crews in all 11 firehouses. Members were also used to assist in the decon effort by supplying water, taking names, and directing people to where they needed to go. In addition, towards evening, the Middletown Railroad Station became a decon station as people began arriving on trains from the city. This was largely a fire department effort, since the other services were stretched thin.
Standard Decon protocol says the runoff from the station must be captured and contained until it can be disposed of properly. The protocol, and our stock of damming and diking material, never anticipated the decon of almost 900 people in a single day. The decision had to be made to allow the runoff to flow into the bay, or the decon effort had to stop. Stopping was not really an alternative. Lesson Learned: Most people, having just suffered through the worst day of their life, don’t take kindly to being washed down, forced to strip to their underwear, and being given a hospital gown to finish their trip home.
The local gas company donated the use of several of their construction light towers for lighting the scene at night. In addition the fire department’s lighting equipment was in place long before dark. Local restaurants fed all of the on-scene volunteers.
At the peak of operations, about 1730 hours, the wind changed direction, and the smoke from NYC began to blow directly at us. We were not prepared to filter any contaminates that may have been in the smoke, and had not planned an alternative location for our efforts. Lesson Learned: Don’t accept that the threat is just what you see. If there were a chemical or biological element in that smoke, I probably wouldn’t be writing this now.
Another function we didn’t expect was that we became the rallying point for all the NYPD and FDNY people in New Jersey who wanted to get back into the city to do their part. We arranged transportation to Highlands and got them on a ferry on a return trip.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for all the fire and EMS channels to become saturated with command and tactical traffic. We deployed a mobile repeater on the top of the unit and gave 3 portable radios to EMS Group, EMS Operations, and EMS staging. Even though a mile or more sometimes separated these three, the repeater gave them a command net that worked perfectly. Our ability to program additional department portables was useful in operating up this command net.
At 2200hrs our operation wound down and, with the exception of the Railroad Station operation, was terminated.
“Were we prepared?” No. I find it difficult to believe that any nation, city, or town can prepare to go from peace to war in one morning. And we were just in a supporting role - we weren’t facing what they were up against in Manhattan. But I do believe that we had set up a foundation on which to operate. ICS had been taught here in NJ for many years, and the departments with which we are involved use it every day. We had good equipment with backups for almost everything. Some systems, such as the cell phones, failed.
Did we learn anything? Yes. Many things. The trained manpower for the Field Communications Unit is inadequate for long incidents. If we had to operate for another 10 hours, we would have had to pull people from other critical positions. If the deployment was for several days, we do not have the number of people it would take to maintain the level of activity required of us. We need to train more backups, instead of letting people take the positions they are comfortable with in drills.
We made many people unhappy with us. People felt they should be included in meetings they weren’t invited to, or were barred from attending. I believe the system would not have worked if it had become a democracy. People wanted to come into the communications vehicle and “see it in action” or just to use the bathroom. They were denied entry. As it was, there were sometimes one or two more people than there should have been.
A facilitator is necessary. Department heads sometimes want to branch out and overlap the responsibility of others. A trusted subordinate may be saddled with too much responsibility. Usually, tactfully reminding the person of the span of control, or the division of tasks was sufficient, but sometimes command intervention was required. In this case, even though I was Captain of the Communications Unit, I am employed as a dispatcher by the Middletown Police, and was almost always the junior ranking person. But ICS is function-specific, not rank-specific, and that never became an issue with the professionals we had.
At this writing, only one member of our Fire Department has been killed. Firefighter Ken Teitjen of Station 3 was a Port Authority Police Officer. He was last seen running up the stairs of the south tower just before it collapsed. We will long remember him.
Skip Trudo is a Senior Dispatcher for Middletown Township Police, with 20 years of experience. He is also a Captain with the Middletown Township Volunteer Fire Dept.