New York Fire Chief Says Emergency Plan Confusing, Dangerous

NEW YORK -- The fire department chief, a top commander of operations at the 2001 World Trade Center attack, testified Monday that the city's new plan for responding to emergencies lacks clarity and could endanger rescue workers and civilians.

Chief Peter Hayden's remarks were a rare example of a senior official stepping away from his bosses in the Bloomberg administration _ in this case to criticize a plan designed to improve coordination among city agencies in an emergency.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the protocol last month, but the City Council scheduled hearings on the matter after the police and fire departments debated its details for months.

At issue is part of the model that would put the police department in charge at the scene of a chemical or biological attack. Firefighters argue that their expertise with hazardous materials and their mandate to save lives should give them at least equal authority at the command center directing the response to an attack.

"If I'm going to put my people at risk," Hayden said, "I need to participate fully in setting the plan of action."

In most other major cities, the fire department directs the response to incidents involving hazardous materials. Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta in the past has argued his department should oversee hazmat scenes, but on Monday he said he supported the protocol signed by the mayor.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told the council's public safety committee that the plan gives police the authority because of the extreme ramifications from those methods of attack _ the potential for massive loss of life and simultaneous assaults in other areas.

"It is the stakes that are involved here that make this different," Kelly said.

He said the investigation portion of the response, such as collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, therefore must be tightly managed and considered the top priority _ after tending to victims, which is the fire department's responsibility.

But Hayden and several City Council members said it is essentially a contradiction to give police the authority at hazmat incidents while insisting the fire department's lifesaving efforts will always take priority.

"I'm probably more confused now than I was coming into the hearing," Councilman James Oddo said.

Kelly told the council members they were complicating the matter by comparing strategic actions with tactical moves _ while the police would have control of the scene in a hazmat incident, the fire department's lifesaving operations would supersede all other actions as long as there are people who need to be rescued or evacuated.

That doesn't mean the fire department would suddenly control the scene, he said. Rather, the police would make decisions based on lifesaving needs.

But if it's not clear at City Hall, it will be worse at the scene of a terrorist attack, critics said Monday, touching a nerve linked to the emergency response at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 firefighters and 23 New York police officers were killed.

While rescue workers were heralded for saving thousands of people, the lack of coordination between police and fire officials has been cited by several reviews, including the Sept. 11 commission.

Responders set up more than one command station, their radios were not compatible and they failed to share critical information. For example, the fire department wasn't told that police in helicopters observed the north tower appeared likely to collapse.

Hayden told the council that the confusing new emergency protocol could lead to the kind of chaos seen on Sept. 11.

"I'm confused, and my firefighters are confused, and the police officers on the street are going to be confused, and there will be a compromise of safety," Hayden said. "If the objective of that document was to clarify the roles and responsibilities of these agencies, it failed."