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Miracle on the Hudson - The Rescue of Flight 1549: The View from Dispatch

Author: Rich Pressler, FDNY Communications

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-01-16
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Yesterday marks the third anniversary of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River that saved the lives of all 155 people on board the aircraft. 

Originally Published in our Jan/Feb/Mar 2009 issue.

US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, New York, on January 15, 2009.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plane_crash_into_Hudson_River_(crop).jpg

      Thursday January 15, 2009 was an unusually cold day in New York City.  The air temperature was in the upper teens to the low twenties, the water temperature was 42 degrees; with a wind chill factor making it feel like 11 degrees.   An Arctic clipper had come through producing a coating of snow.  Besides bringing bitterly cold temperatures, the cold front also brought quite a bit of fire traffic.  

      The firefighters and officers in the Fire Department of New York work 9 hour day tours and 15 hour night tours, most of them work a 24 hour tour. The dispatchers of the FDNY work 12 hours shifts starting and ending at seven. Dispatchers are only allowed to work 18 consecutive hours.  The firefighters and officers who worked the night tour of January 14th and the day tour of January 15, 2009 were in for a busy 24 hours. The men and women of the Manhattan Communication Office were in for a busy day tour. However, they didn’t realize how busy!

A Typical Day

      As the men and women of the Manhattan Dispatcher’s office were reporting to work for the day tour on January 15, 2009, they were relieving personnel who were dealing with a 2nd alarm fire at Box 1540 located at 154 W 132 Street. This was the 3rd major fire since midnight in the borough of Manhattan. The day tour would end up being just as challenging. At 1030 hours they were faced with another 2nd alarm fire that was transmitted for Box 670 located at 46 W 29 Street. This fire came in as an automatic alarm for a fire in a commercial occupancy. With the extreme cold, companies were faced with frozen hydrants, a heavy fire load, and other obstacles.  Because of the inordinate amount of fire activity as well as several winter related incidents Manhattan was placed into Fallback Step 3 (see sidebar-1 below). Things had started to quiet down when there was another one alarm fire at Box 602 located at 461 W 22 Street. Manhattan had reverted out of fallback and activity had slowed down, and here it was only half way through the work shift.

As they say, it was quiet until it got busy…

    

The FDNY’s Manhattan Central  Office.   Dispatchers had to contend with a moving incident on the water while coordinating the response of marine and land units to effect the rescue of all 155 people on board the aircraft.
Photo: Rich Pressler

Plane in the Water

      US Air flight 1594 had just taken off from NY LaGuardia Airport when, at 1529 hours, according to published reports, they reported a bird strike, and that they were returning to the airport.  LaGuardia’s tower notified city agencies via an emergency network system of a Call 4-2 which is a minor emergency (Crash Box).  In the next couple of minutes, dispatchers in the Bronx and Manhattan Central Offices were receiving calls for fire coming from a plane’s engines at various locations.

            In order to expedite processing times, the Fire Department of New York has instituted a program to prerelease an incident. Once the alarm receipt dispatcher gets a borough, an address, nature of the emergency and where in the building, they will prerelease the incident for dispatch.  After the incident is prereleased, the dispatcher then will verify cross streets and obtain a call back number.

      At 1533 hours (3:33 PM) Manhattan received the first of several phone calls stating that a plane had just landed in the Hudson River, which is a tidal river that separates New York and New Jersey. Since this incident could be viewed by people in two states, 9-1-1 operators in New Jersey were also receiving calls. Subsequent phone calls to the Manhattan Central Office advised that the passengers were self evacuating the plane and were on the wings.  The first call was processed and released to the companies in 31 seconds. Box 868 was transmitted for a plane in the water at W 50 Street and the Hudson River. 

Massive cranes at River Terrace Dock prepare for extraction of the aircraft from Hudson River on Jan 17, 2009.
Photo: Wayne Carrington

Unlike many cities that base their responses on addresses, the New York City Fire Department is based on Box locations which experience has found to be simpler, faster and more efficient, thus the initial assignment for Box 868 also include Rescue 1 and Marine 1. (These units would have been assigned anyway because of the type of incident).  Since there is no set response for a plane in the water, the decision was made to send a full structural response in addition to the normally assigned Rescue, Marine company, normally assigned squad, the rescue battalion, the safety battalion, and a tactical support unit. Based on the calls reporting several people in the water and people on the wings of the plane, the Decision Dispatcher also started out a second rescue company. Notifications were also made to the Bureau of EMS and the US Coast Guard as per operating guidelines.

      At 1536, Rescue 1, who is quartered 6 blocks from the incident, arrived and urgently confirmed a large aircraft in the water with numerous people in the water.  Battalion 9, who was the original incident commander, based on the information received from Rescue 1 and confirmation from the Police Department of a commercial aircraft in the water, transmitted a 10-60 Major Emergency (see Sidebar-3 below) which also requires the transmission of a 2nd Alarm. Due to the activity level, Manhattan was again placed into Fallback Step 3. While most of the Fire Department activities were centered on the main crash site there was also Mother Nature to deal with.

 

Moving Incident

      Since the Hudson River is a tidal river, the plane began moving south with the tide.  Several commuter ferries were first on the scene and started rescuing passengers who were in the water and from the wings.  Rescue 1 launched their zodiac boat, while Marine 1 responded initially with their small (fast) boat. (Once their regular (large) boat obtained the needed manpower from land units it also responded).  Because of the complexity of the situation, the Fire Department of New York’s Marine Division started out all of its in service boats: Marine 6 responded from its berth in Brooklyn while Marine 9, which is berthed in Staten Island, responded with manpower consisting of an Engine company, Ladder Company, Battalion Chief, and Rescue 5. A third rescue was assigned  to  the boat due to the fact that all five FDNY rescues are SCUBA qualified and commanders wanted to ensure back up divers would be closer to the landing site. 

      Due to the moving scene, incoming units on the 2nd alarm were split between the main crash site and to Pier 80 which was where the ferries were docking with the rescued passengers. Division 3, who responded on the signal 10-60, became the incident commander at the preliminary landing/crash site.  Division 1, which was the second deputy assigned on the 10-60, responded to Pier 80 and became the incident commander at that location. Because of the different locations received and based on the possibility of a large debris field, several additional boxes were sent out. Fire Department units were dispatched to W 187 Street and the Hudson River, W 135 Street and the Hudson River and W 96 Street and the Hudson River. 

      In addition units were dispatched to the 30th Street heliport to assist with ferries and or helicopters that may be bringing in victims.  Since ferries were transporting the victims to either side of the river, the North Hudson Regional Fire Department also had a response to the Arthur’s Landing dock in Weehawken NJ where they assisted EMS personnel in removing the injured.  The North Hudson Regional Fire Department also dispatched a fire boat to assist in the rescue operation.  In addition to the FDNY boats, there was also a response from the New York Police Department which included boats and helicopters as well as the United States Coast Guard. 

      After the passengers and crew were rescued, there was still the plane to deal with.  The plane drifted with the current downstream where it eventually was corralled and tethered to a dock located near Battery Park. Since the plane still had most of its fuel on board a 10-86 (request for foam - see Sidebar 4 below) was transmitted for Box 113 located at Murray Street and West Street.  The Fire Department kept a foam unit and other equipment on the scene for several days. The units remained on the scene while governmental agencies conducted their investigation until the plane was removed out of the water and to a barge. 

         While the dispatch office was busy dealing with the plane crash, it also was dealing with the weather related incidents which had been prevalent through out the day.  In addition the dispatchers also had to provide coverage for the areas left empty by units responding to the plane crash.  Throughout the day tour over fifty relocations had taken place with thirty of them occurring for the plane crash.

     

A crane lifts Flight 1594 out of the Hudson River shortly after midnight on Jan. 18th.  The  70,000 lb. jet, now weighing in at over 1 million lbs. of water soaked weight, was raised slowly an inch at a time to relieve the pressure and water displacement.
Photo provided via Wayne Carrington for 9-1-1 Magazine.

 

Lessons Learned

While the incident proved challenging there were several situations that added to the chaos of the situation.

  • The biggest issue was that unlike, most incidents which are stationary, this incident moved—a distance of nearly four miles!
  • While it is not required, a staging area with a staging area manager (normally an FDNY Battalion Chief) should be designated early on in large scale incidents. This provides much greater more control of the units that are responding.
  • In large scale incidents, every effort should be made to minimize confusion for both responding units and units already operating regarding where they are assigned and what their function is.  To this end, units that are already committed to one location should only be instructed to “pick-up” and respond elsewhere in extreme circumstances.  Further, these instructions should be at the discretion of one overall incident commander. 
  • A second staging area and/or transmission of a greater alarm could have been requested in order to alleviate some of the issues with the split assignment and to ensure ample manpower had both locations. This location may be a deployment area remote from the incident yet close enough to permit a rapid response should they be needed. 
  • Effective training and skills on the part of Dispatchers helps to ensure an effective response to incidents that are not readily anticipated. The fact that FDNY dispatch personnel are permitted a great deal of leeway and discretion regarding assignments to incidents, allowed the response to be shaped for the situation that was actually encountered—i.e.: the rapid assignment of additional rescue and marine companies.  In short, common sense and good judgment are required tools for dispatchers facing extreme situations.
  • More attention should be paid to developing communication and coordination between New York and New Jersey agencies to ensure maximum effectiveness during incidents that occur on the border between these two states.  Ideally, there should be an annual interagency drill focusing on river incidents that would require the response of agencies from both entities and improved radio communications resources for such a purpose.

 

Conclusion

As the investigation continues into the safe water landing of an aircraft, the men and women of the Manhattan Fire Communications continue to serve the people and visitors of New York City.  January was a very busy month not only in Manhattan but throughout the five boroughs.  In fact later on that night in Manhattan there were three other one alarm fires. Citywide in the month of January there were almost three hundred one alarm fires or greater and over forty multiple alarm fires!  The dispatchers in all the central offices always work in a manner that exemplifies the professionalism and esprit de corps of the New York City Fire Department.  The dispatchers are always up to the challenges of protecting the people that just drop in to visit, work in the city, or the millions of people that call New York City home.

 

Sidebar-1: Fallback

Fallback refers to procedures that are implemented during busy periods. It is divided into 3 steps.

  • Step 1- No engine is sent to an ERS (two-way call box) if no voice contact made.
  • Step 2- Single Engine is sent to mechanical boxes (Normally gets a structural response).
  • Step 3- 1 Engine, 1 Ladder, and a chief sent to all reported structural fires.

An NYPD Marine Unit waits with 3rd Crane as the recovery process progresses.  A US Coast Guard boat patrols nearby.
Photo: Wayne Carrington

Sidebar-2 : Port Authority

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has developed an emergency activation level to notify city agencies of an impending incident.

  • Call 32/42 –is a minor emergency (NO FD Response)
  • Call 33/43-is a moderate emergency (FD may be requested)
  • Call 34/44-is a major emergency (FD responds) – Personnel in the control tower also pulls a FDNY alarm box (airport crash boxes get a full second alarm assignment with numerous special units).

 

Sidebar-3: FDNY Major Emergency Response

      10-60 Major Emergency – provides the response of an enhanced 2nd alarm and is transmitted for a major collapse, plane crash (not associated with a crash box), train derailment or similar emergency with the potential for multiple casualties. The total response will be: 8 Engines, 5 Trucks (one being the FAST Truck), 6 Battalion Chiefs (3rd due chief is Safety Officer; 6th due chief is Resource Unit Leader), 2 Deputy Chiefs, 2 Rescue Collapse Task Forces, 2 SOC Support Trucks, SOC logistics van, Squad 1 with is Technical Response Vehicle, 1 additional Squad, Rescue Battalion, Haz-Mat Battalion, Safety Battalion, Field Communications Unit, Satellite Unit with its associated Engine, RAC Unit, and a Mobile Command Center).  Also a FDNY Battalion responds and meets NYPD Aviation to provide Air Recon.

 

Sidebar-4: 10-86 Fluoroprotein Foam Operation

Transmitted for a fire or emergency requiring Fluoroprotein foam concentrate in addition to that carried by units on the scene. The following units are to respond:

  • 2- Foam Carriers and associated engine companies
  • 2- Foam Coordinators (Battalion Chiefs)
  • 1- Satellite Unit and associated engine company
  • 1- Foam Tender and associated engine company
  • 2- Purple K Units and associated engine companies

 

Rich Pressler is a Supervising Dispatcher Level II for the FDNY, assigned to Manhattan Operations for the last six years.  He’s been with the department for 17 years, and a Supervising Dispatcher Level 1 for ten years.  Rich has a BS degree in Fire Science from New Jersey State University.  Special thanks goes to Juan Gonzalez, the supervisor on duty during the Flight 1594 incident, who provided information and insight into the article.

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