At a fire alarm there is no time to talk around a subject, for in the pandemonium of an emergency where lives are jeopardized there are no second chances. A fire chief gets one chance to save a life or lose it, and the success or failure of his decision will normally be determined in seconds and not in minutes. And so Peter Hayden, the Chief of the New York City Fire Department, like most fire chiefs, is as direct as a billboard in presenting his ideas. He is an elegant thinker who speaks with a laconic immediacy unadorned by the intrusions of embroidered language. This comes from his training as a fire officer, and, because of the need for unambiguous communications in saving lives, his clear, direct manner of speech his should be reassuring to all New Yorkers.
That Hayden is admired by the firefighters of New York is unquestioned. He is known in the department to be a fair man, one who listens, but also one who is dedicated to maintaining the historical standards of discipline and order found in the department's regulations. He knows that the safety of all citizens ultimately depends on the disposition of his firefighters, and the chief harbors no infringements on the department's standards. Tough and sensitive, Peter Hayden in more innocent days would be called "a solid man."
This is the man who, because of a Mayor's prerogative, a city council's subpoena to testify, and aggressive election year news coverage, has been given both a devil's choice to speak or to hold his counsel, and an opportunity with his job possibly at stake to be a profile in courage.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has the right in the City Charter to change, reorganize, or merge any city agency, determined to make a decision about emergency incident command after the police and fire departments failed in more than three years of discussions to come to comprehensive agreement about which department controls which emergencies. On the sticking points the departments agreed to share control in a system of "unified command,"" except for those situations that involved hazardous materials. Commissioner Kelly insisted that the police have control at hazmat incidents because of the homeland security need to immediately determine if a terrorist act has been committed — a situation that might require extraordinary actions including the shutting down of airports, bridges, and subways. Chief Hayden disagreed because of the immediate life threat to his firefighters and to the citizens, and because the fire department is sufficiently equipped and trained for any hazmat incident. The fire department by City Charter is charged "...to preserve public health, safety and welfare, and to perform any functions relating to the provision of such services." Mayor Bloomberg, who did not build a great company by being irresolute, decided that the Homeland Security rationale trumped the fire department mandate.
We all should realize that we are in a daily race between enlightenment and catastrophe, and these questions of safety are paramount in every officials mind. But, of course, there is a subtext in all this. Mayors in New York do not get elected because of a plan to make the city more fire safe, but they do get elected on a platform of reduced crime. In his effort to make the city more crime-safe the mayor has had a great resource in Commissioner Kelly, possibly the best thought of police commissioner since Teddy Roosevelt. But, more important than Roosevelt ever was as a commissioner, Kelly has an esteemed reputation in Washington among all who count in the law enforcement and homeland security fields. And, so, the mayor naturally has great confidence in the commissioner who has delivered both a reduction in crime and a direct line into the Department of Homeland Security's allocation program, and that confidence has conveyed to the police commissioner's advice in regard to the city's Citywide Incident Management System's management of haz-mat emergencies.
Chief Hayden flatly disagreed with the haz-mat decision, the City Council subpoenaed him, and a firestorm of controversy was created, mostly headlined by references to the battle of the badges. Yes, there have been field confrontations, some more serious than others, between firefighters and police officers over the years, maybe a dozen in thirty years having to do with hegemony at emergencies. This will be a continuing problem for both departments, protocol or no protocol, for these are the largest departments in the world, and some inevitably will attempt to act beyond their authority. But, battling badges is not a prudent or in any way accurate manner to think of our first responders in an age of terrorism, nor does it convey the issue of incident command.
Chief Hayden, working without tenure, knew that his position might be taken from him by a public disagreement with the mayor, but surely there are many in the Mayor's own bullpen who disagree with him from time to time. Hayden disagreed because he is a true leader, and when asked about the protocol spoke his mind, as we should expect from the official who is charged with our safety. But Hayden also is the leader of the most team-oriented organization on earth, the FDNY, and is a team player by inclination and training, far from a pugnacious and intransigent combatant in the so-called battle of the badges.
Badges and uniforms do not separate the men and women in our emergency services, but more reliably bring them together. This has always been my experience. To focus my own sense of the character of the men in the police and fire departments I always think back to 9/11 and what I witnessed. In the devastated midst of shock and anguish that day there was Joseph Dunne, First Deputy Police Commissioner (now retired), a large and vibrant man reduced because of a torn Achilles tendon to limping on crutches, yet he had left the Mayor's retinue to hobble in the extraordinary danger among his police officers at the base of the World Trade Center because he felt he could be no other place. It was only because the officers at the scene forcibly pushed him into a van that his life was saved as the south tower began to fall. And, in that same minute, there was Peter Hayden buried in the debris a block away as some of the south tower fell into the north, finding his hands and feet in the dark, rushing to evaluate, discovering and carrying the Department's chaplain, Michael Judge, away, and finally in inspiring command on top of a ruined fire truck for what seemed like days directing the rescue efforts.
If, as the US Commission on 9/11 and the National Institute of Structures and Technology Report suggest, a better communication between the departments could have saved additional lives, it is a possibility that has been well integrated into the strategic thinking of both departments. I have seen that these departments are today working well together, an observation that will not sell newspapers. I do believe that all of the officials, from Commissioner Kelly and Chief Hayden on down, will be mindful of their responsibilities in every situation where lives are at stake. Time will tell, but in the meantime New York's police and fire officers will offer the most professional service in the world, and we are, at the bottom line, lucky to have them.
Nations normally reward heroes who give of themselves in moments of great need - think of Eisenhower, deGaulle, and even Lech Walesa. Indeed, Mayor Giuliani excelled on 9/11 and is now a possible Presidential nominee. But, the greatest heroes in New York's history are the men and women of the police and fire departments represented by Dunne and Hayden - men who were there at the ne plus ultra moment of need. They do not have battling badges. They grew up together, just a few blocks from one another in Rockaway. They are the same demographic, have the same love for their family, the same pride in their troops. I only wish every citizen in America was aware of that.