Wednesday, May 11, 2005

City's disaster plan draws fire

NY Daily News

City's disaster plan draws fire

FDNY chief calls command system 'bad policy'


FDNY Chief of Department Peter Hayden testifies at Council Public Safety Committee hearing, calling disaster system 'bad policy.'
Invoking the ghosts of 9/11, the city's highest-ranking firefighter blasted the city's new emergency management system as a disaster that places people at risk.

"It's a bad policy," FDNY Chief of Department Peter Hayden testified yesterday.

"I owe it to the memory of all those people who were lost. I owe it to those who will be responding to the next tragic event," he said. "This policy does not make sense."

Hayden was the only city official to break ranks at a City Council Public Safety Committee hearing - publicly challenging Mayor Bloomberg's decision to give the Police Department command at virtually all emergency scenes.

The policy creates a command hierarchy that governs how andwhen the Police and Fire departments share command of certain disasters, a technique called unified command.

The most controversial directive puts the NYPD in charge of hazardous material incidents where chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threats may be involved.

If no crime or terrorism has been committed or suspected, the NYPD cedes control and it reverts to a unified command.

Hayden said the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, should have taught everyone better.

Hayden took command of the north tower just minutes after the World Trade Center was attacked.

Since those grim days, Hayden said, he was bound to fix the problems in command, communication and information- sharing that plagued the city's rescue efforts on Sept. 11 and contributed to the death of so many uniformed officers.

"In a crisis, people's vision narrows to their own responsibilities," Hayden said. So police commanders never told their fire colleagues "about the top 15 floors glowing red and the possibility of collapse."

"The NYPD and the FDNY never crossed groups to consider the welfare of the other," Hayden continued. "We cannot afford this to happen again."

His opposition was more than a turf war or a Battle of the Badges, he said, reasoning that the way the policy is written, no one understood who was really in charge at a scene where hazardous materials were in play.

"You hear testimony this morning extensively from the commissioners. They are very confused. They couldn't even answer questions straight," Hayden said to quiet laughter from the audience.

"If they're confused, and I'm confused and my firefighters are confused and the police officers on the street are going to be confused, there will be a compromise in safety. That's what this is all about," said Hayden, who advocated both departments share command of all scenes.

The mayor's emergency protocol does call for a unified command for many incidents where more than one agency may respond, such as an aviation disaster - meaning that if a plane strikes a city skyscraper, a unified command would be in control.

So it makes little sense to Hayden and rank-and-file firefighters - scores of whom filled the Council gallery - that the NYPD should call the shots at haz-mat incidents.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified that the NYPD got control because the risk of not investigating possible terror incidents was too high.

"The stakes are so great in the area of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat - you are talking about the possibility of indeed hundreds of thousands of casualties, hundreds of thousands of lives in a successful attack - that in this particular incidence, we think an investigation is paramount," he said.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said it was foolish to deny that a "rivalry has existed" between the two agencies, but he said progress has been made since 9/11 and he was confident "good faith and common sense will prevail."

That left City Councilman James Oddo (R-S.I.) shaking his head, saying that was "naiveté at its worst."