This Time The Badges Aren't Battling

NYTimes   May 15, 2005

CHOOSING who should take charge in a civic emergency during this age of terrorism is like climbing a slippery slope, and the fingers of city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, must be wearing down to the bone. Mr. Bloomberg, who cannot be called irresolute in any way, has the right to change, reorganize or merge any city agency, and so after listening patiently for years to disagreements between the Police and Fire Departments on this issue, he determined to end the argument.

For better or worse, he decided that contrary to the plan in every other major city, the Police Department rather than the fire officials will have exclusive command at hazardous-material incidents until it determines if a crime or terrorist act has taken place. There is no more hot-button issue for the firefighters, who feel an encroachment by the police into territory where they are certain they have a larger and more reliable force of responders who are better equipped and trained.

Hazardous materials are defined in four categories: chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear, and the Fire Department responded to more than 25,000 incidents involving them in the last year alone. Of these, just one tenth of 1 percent involved a crime of any kind. And so the Fire Department, in the words of its chief of department, Peter Hayden, "is confused" when it comes to the assignment of command at these incidents. How can the police be put in charge of 25,000 incidents when only 25 of them involved crimes?

The obvious answer is that it would take only one serious hazardous materials incident to devastate the city, and the Police Department should be in charge because it needs to determine immediately if it should close the city's bridges, tunnels, airports and subways. It also has to gather evidence; in an anthrax attack, for instance, the powder must be preserved and analyzed to pinpoint its origin before it is washed away.

But wait a minute. Isn't there a hazard to innocent lives in every hazardous materials incident, and isn't it a fundamental rule in all emergency operations that saving lives is always the first priority? And isn't the Fire Department the agency charged by the City Charter "to preserve public health, safety and welfare"?

Picture this scene: scores of people are running out of a subway when a first responder arrives, all of them holding handkerchiefs to their mouths, many coughing and staggering. We do not know what the problem is, but we can assume that the arriving police and fire officers know their jobs well. For our average citizen, though, the question should be asked: if it's you in that subway, or a member of your family, whom do you want to be in charge?

Both services are well prepared. There is no question that our police officers would have the courage to don a protective suit and enter the unknown of that subway. And at any major incident, one of the department's emergency services units will respond. According to city documents I have seen and officials I have spoken to, there are 10 of these units in the five boroughs, each with a large truck and five smaller trucks; in total, they have about 500 men and women who are trained to don protective clothing and who have more than 80 hours of hazardous material training. They also have a decontaminating truck, and a state-of-the-art "weapons of mass destruction" unit that has a large truck and about 20 well-trained men and women.

But this pales in comparison to what the Fire Department, which has had a hazardous material unit for more than 20 years, can bring to the scene. Today's "hazmat" team consists of a lead unit of seven men, each with more than 538 hours of training, in a large rescue van. Behind them comes an armada with seven squads, 29 ladder trucks, four engines and a rescue company. There are at least six men on each truck, each with more than 88 hours of training, and the entire team has more than 700 men and women, all with protective clothing. In addition, the department has five decontaminating shower trucks and two decontaminating support trucks, 22 specially equipped ambulances and 234 medical workers, each with more than 80 hours of hazardous materials training. All of these units are up and running 24 hours a day.

Nonetheless, the fire chiefs want the Police Department to have a command role, because everyone understands the immediate demands of terrorism. Yet given the danger to lives involved, the fire chiefs are certain that they should be in command as well - giving every incident a shared management in a unified command system like other cities. Indeed, if there are several terrorist incidents at the same time, there will be many life-saving challenges, and so almost by definition this responsibility should be shared by both departments.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, however, feels that in such an emergency a unified command system is unacceptable. And he has a lot of influence. Mayors in New York do not get elected because of a plan to protect the city from fire, but they do get elected if the public feels they can reduce crime. And in this, the mayor has had a great resource in Mr. Kelly, who has not only reduced crime in his two tenures at the top but also has experience in Washington and gets a warm reception in the halls of the Department of Homeland Security.

I doubt that Chief Hayden, working without tenure, wanted to pick a fight with the mayor in front of the City Council. He disagreed with the new protocol because he is a true leader and when questioned, he spoke his mind, as we should expect from the official charged with our safety.

Above all, his stance should not be seen as the latest salvo in some "battle of the badges." Badges and uniforms do not separate the men and women in our emergency services, but more reliably bring them together. The difficulty here is not rivalry, but an honest disagreement made more heated because the hazardous-material experts of the two departments do not regularly train together, a shortcoming of policy that perhaps reflects a bigger picture.

It all comes down to each of us imagining that we are stumbling off that subway and wondering if, perhaps, our odds of survival wouldn't be better if the two departments were working together as equals to get us out.

Dennis Smith, a retired New York City firefighter, is the author of the forthcoming "San Francisco Is Burning."

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