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New Terrorism Response Plan Angers Fire Dept
The New York Times - Friday, April 22, 2005


Days before New York City is to make public its plan for managing the emergency response at major disasters, senior Fire Department officials still have grave concerns about the part of the plan that gives the Police Department primary responsibility at the scene of a biological or chemical attack.

The Fire Department, in a 21-page February memo to the city's Office of Emergency Management signed by Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, said that allowing the Police Department to control agencies at the scene of such an attack "jeopardizes public safety."

Fire officials, both in the memo and in more recent meetings with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, argued that their department had the expertise, the training and the highly specialized units to direct the response at such a disaster.

In an interview this week, Chief of Department Peter Hayden, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Fire Department, said that while the department would follow the new protocol, the city's decision to grant the police primacy at such emergency scenes was one element of a still dangerously flawed emergency response plan.

"If the question was posed today - would the response at a terrorist incident be different than it was on 9/11? - the answer would have to be no," Chief Hayden said. "Now if that isn't a recipe for disaster, I don't know what is."

Fire officials say they should be among the commanders leading such responses because they have been handling hazardous-materials incidents for decades. They also say they have more sophisticated equipment to contain chemical or biological materials and more experience identifying such substances, and are uniquely prepared to direct lifesaving efforts.

Mr. Bloomberg, according to city officials, formally signed the executive order governing the control of disaster responses on April 11. The response plan gives the Police Department the authority to direct the work of the city's emergency agencies at virtually every major disaster scene involving hazardous materials, at least until the threat of terrorism has been eliminated. City Council hearings on the plan are set for May 2.

Despite his earlier objections to the newly adopted emergency response plan, known formally as the Citywide Incident Management System, Mr. Scoppetta said yesterday that it was now his job to try to make it work.

Edward Skyler, a spokesman for the mayor, said Mr. Bloomberg consulted with both departments before signing the protocol. "The mayor got a great deal of input from different perspectives," Mr. Skyler said, "but ultimately it's his job to make a decision, and that's what he did."

The Police Department would not comment yesterday on the emergency response plan.

The city's effort to work out a binding emergency response plan has been hampered by the longstanding rivalries and mistrust that have plagued relations between the departments for decades. A variety of city and federal inquiries into the city's emergency response at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, while acknowledging acts of extraordinary bravery, found fault with the planning and performance of the departments, citing poor communication, a lack of discipline and coordination, and the absence of a unified command structure. One of the federal investigations suggested that those problems contributed to the deaths of numerous rescuers.

But Chief Hayden said this week that more than three years after the trade center disaster, the Police and Fire Departments had so far failed to take advantage of even one of the most basic plans for how to better coordinate efforts at the scene of a terrorist attack: using a shared radio frequency that would permit commanders of the two departments to communicate directly.

The Fire Department's concern, even anger, over the new response plan is no surprise. Over the last two years, as meetings were held and draft versions of the plan were drawn up, the department has expressed worry about losing its command role at some emergencies.

The department's worries deepened as the plan moved toward a final form. Mr. Scoppetta and Chief Hayden met in person with Mr. Bloomberg in recent months to express their concerns.

Indeed, in its memo outlining its criticism of the plan, the Fire Department said the idea of having the police in charge of hazardous material incidents was in direct opposition to the protocols for a shared command structure formulated by the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Under the city's new plan, fire personnel would be involved in tackling any biological or chemical attack, performing many of the duties they have been trained to do. But police officials would be the commanders at the scene, ultimately responsible for making critical operational decisions.

In almost all other American cities, though, incidents involving the release of hazardous material are handled by fire departments, and it is their officials who command firefighters in the field, fire officials say. The police typically respond to the scene to help secure the perimeter and to assist with investigation. These roles hold fast regardless of whether the release was accidental or intentional.

City fire officials said their command roles at other incidents - fires and building collapses - would be unchanged even if such an incident was found to have been intentional. They said that removing hazardous material incidents from their command was inconsistent with the city and national models.

In his February memo, Mr. Scoppetta suggested that the Police Department had never believed in developing a plan for the two agencies to truly share command at major disasters. He pointed to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly's testimony to the City Council in 2002 when Mr. Kelly said he did not believe that the management model used by the federal government and other cities was appropriate for New York City.

In the same document, Mr. Scoppetta said that the police not only are less equipped and skilled at handling hazardous materials incidents, but they often failed to appear at them altogether.In a letter from a police official to the Office of Emergency Management that became public last year, the police stated that they should have control of any incident that could possibly be a crime scene. The letter stated that the lead agency should be one that could "manage the entire incident" rather than the "agency with the expertise to resolve one or more specialized aspects of the incident."

Yesterday, Joseph Bruno, the commissioner of the management office, acknowledged that most cities handle the command of hazardous materials incidents in another way, but he added: "In New York City, we're going in this direction. No one said you can't do it the other way, but we think this is the right way."

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting for this article.


© Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

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