May 11, 2002

An open letter to Tom Ridge the Homeland Security Director

Dear Mr. Ridge,
You told Mayors at the annual winter meeting of US conference of Mayors the president’s White House Domestic Anti-Terror plan would help shoulder the cost of protecting the Cites while making them a better place to live. And to be included in the plan will be unprecedented support for cites to pay for firefighters and other first responders.. The following are some urgent need of firefighters of New York City in the fight against terrorist. I hope your funding plan considers some of the following needs of the New York City firefighters.
1. The fire service needs a new portable radio for high-rise fires. The fire chiefs in New York City require a portable radio that transmits messages from the lobby of a high- rise building, to the roof. If there is no radio communications there cannot be effective life saving, nor command of control of a fire or emergency. The portable radios we use in the FDNY are all right for low-rise buildings, but they are ineffective in high-rise burning buildings, and emergencies in cellars, subways, and tunnels. The steel and concrete interferes with the transmission. The FDNY has to use the radios provided by the MTA or Port authority. Delay and interference in radio transmission slowed down rescues and the evacuation of firefighters from the WTC terrorist airplane attack. In 1993 when the terrorist bomb exploded in the cellar there was no port authority personnel to give us radios. And New York City Fire Department radios did not transmit throughout the upper floors of the building. One radio test I conducted in the Empire State Building, after the bombing, worked up to the 65 floor of the empire state building. Relays are required beyond this height. We can do better. Antenna should be required in all high-rise buildings, tunnels and subways to insure transmission of fire department radios.
2. The fire service needs the so-called “smart turnout coat” to protect firefighters
This so called “smart turnout cost has a temperature warning alarm. The alarm rings when the firefighter enters a high temperature area of 300 – 500 degrees F. It would prevent firefighters from entering a deadly superheated atmosphere when a warning device in the coat sounds and alarm. The number of firefighters killed by being “caught and trapped” in fires has not been reduced over the last quarter century. The National Fire Protection Association, in their, “Firefighter Fatality” report for the latest year, 2000, stated the death rate at structure fires overall was no lower in the late 1990s than it was in the late 1970s. We certainly can do better. Firefighter today go into superheated high- rise burning buildings deeper and faster than we did 30 or 40 years ago. This is because they are encapsulated in heat insulating protective clothing that give no warning when the smoke and heat becomes deadly. Our modern protective clothing is good; it reduced the number of disfiguring burns. However like every change there is a down side. The protective turnout gear does not allow firefighter to sense heat. When you feel host in the new turnout gear -you are already burned. To protect firefighter we need a so-called “smart coat.” Today there is no way to determine the temperature of a burning room. To make the new turnout coat effective firefighter need the temperature sensing device and alarm. This will reduce the number of firefighter death in burning structures from being “caught and trapped.” Three firefighters in NYC died in a hallway of a high-rise building. The cause of death was hyperthermia. This is overheating of the body. It may occur when the body overheats and cannot be cooled by perspiration.
3. The fire service needs a -firefighter tracking system to supervise and control firefighters during smoky building fires. Instead of our current “pass alarm” (protective alarm signaling system) that only reacts when the firefighter is trapped or rendered unconscious. We need a proactive safety tracking system to keep firefighter from becoming trapped or unconscious, not a reactive system. The fire service has long recognized the danger of becoming disoriented in smoke when searching for trapped victims. Disorientation can cause a firefighter to be “caught and trapped”. The fire service needs a tracking system that can work on upper floors of high-rise buildings and the cellars of low-rise buildings. This tracking device (electronic chip) would allow the incident commander to know the location of all firefighter in a smoke filled high-rise building. The bodies of firefighters buried in the World Trade Center Collapse would be located if the FDNY had a tracking system.
4. The fire service needs a telescopic- video warning - system to detect structural failure in burning buildings. During the World trade center fire this video computer transit system might have detected the failing structure on the upper floors. When there is a danger of a wall falling on rescuers or people leaving a burning building a high-powered video camera telescopic lens could be focused on the dangerous wall. The angle of the lean or the crack in the damage wall is zeroed in on with the telescopic video camera. And a mouse on the computer screen selects the collapse area. If the wall crack expands beyond the area of selection an alarm bell rings and the firefighter monitoring the video computer transit notifies the chief of the collapse danger. Captain Al Fuentes of SOC is supervising development of such a camera. This video computer transit can detect building movement impossible to see by the human eye. The FDNY needs this tool.
5. The fire service needs robots for firefighting. One such robot would be used to attack fires in superheated atmospheres and in haz-mat burning incidents. Clamp a nozzle on the robot, start water and let it enter the flame and heat of an inaccessible burning structure. The eighth annual firefighting robot competition held at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut was just held. About 500 people form China, Korea, France, Romania, Kuwait, and Argentina cheered as their robots found their way though a model of a single floor of a private dwelling. Simulating four rooms and a hallway. I have never seen a robot demonstrated in American fire department. The fire service needs this tool for fighting terrorism fires.
6. The New York City Fire Department needs firefighting helicopters.
There is a helicopter that can rescue people trapped on the roof of a high-rise building. Also there is a helicopter that can spray one thousand gallons of water into the upper floors of a burning high-rise building. This helicopter would allow firefighters to fight a fire caused by a terrorist bomb in the upper floors of a high- rise building from the outside. Something we cannot do today. The people of New York need a fire department that has helicopters.
7. The Fire Service needs new fireboats to protect the waterfronts of New York and New Jersey.
After the World trade center collapsed the water main and hydrants were buried and broken. The firefighters went to the North river and stretched large diameter supply lines from fireboats. The water from the fireboats supplied pumpers, which supplied rescuers hose lines. One of the fireboats that supplied water to FDNY pumpers at the World Trade Center after the collapse was the John J Harvey. This boat was sold for scrap metal several years ago. The FDNY used to have 9 fireboats protecting the waterways of New York and New Jersey. Today we have four. The most recent fireboat purchased is small surface crafts. They do not have the water pumping capability of the older large fireboats. To protect the ports and ships entering New York harbor from terrorism we need new large fireboats.
8.The fire service needs a new self-contained breathing apparatus SCBA (masks). The fire service in going into the 21st century with the same heavy mask and tank we used in the 1950’s. Firefighters in the high-rise district wear masks (approximately 35 pounds), which supply air for 45 minutes. If you breathe deeply you may only get 30 minutes of air. We search high-rise building for several hours and have to change air tanks several times during a fire or emergency. A mask weights 35 pounds our turnout gear weights 30 pound and a length of hose weights 30 pounds. When you carry tools you may be burdened down with 100 pounds. Heavy masks also slow a firefighter’s escape from a collapsing building. Firefighters all over the county need a 21-century mask. We can do better. We need a lightweight mask that weights only 10 or 15 pound
and can give a firefighter air for over one hour.
9. The fire service needs an officer and five firefighters on every responding high-rise engine company. The officer supervises and insures safety of the operation, one firefighter operates the pump; and four firefighters stretch and carry hose and equipment up to the high-rise fire. Today in New York city engine companies with only one officer and four firefighters must wait for another fire company to arrive to team up and to position the required four lengths of 2-_ inch hose line into operate at a high-rise fire. This is required by our standard operating procedure. After budget cuts of the 1970s engine companies responding to high-rise fires in New York City have one officer and only four firefighters. In New York City at a 10-76 signal for a high rise fires four engine companies respond. If the engine companies have one officer and 4 firefighters only two lines will be placed into operation. However, if they have five firefighters assigned, the first assignment could place 4 attack hose lines into position. Four extra firefighters would increase productivity of the hose teams by 100% It is much worse outside New York City. Most fire companies in America responding to low-rise fires consider us fortunate. Some fire departments have companies responding with only one officer, one pump operator and one firefighter to stretch hose. In these undermanned fire districts it is truly wonderful the way everyone responding to a fire pitches in and fills in to get the job done. But it creates dangerous firefighting. There can be no standard operating procedures when the number of firefighters responding is sporadic. And when the city closes down a fire company due to lack of firefighters there can be no dependable coordinated back up response. At some fires the chief must juggle firefighter assignments, change on the spot operating positions and fill in missing companies when mutual aid companies arrive. Today in some fire departments we have company officers helping firefighters stretching hose, and worse yet we have chief officer leaving command posts to check fire inside the burning building.
10. Firefighters need a phase three elevators in high-rise buildings that works. The phase two systems the so-called fireman’s-service fails and traps occupants and people in elevators during high- rise fires. A study in New York City Fire Prevention bureau authorized by Chief in Charge, John Hodgens, revealed the elevators failed at one third of the major high rise fires in New York City. Even elevators on so called phase 2 failed (This is a system designed as a firefighter’s service). One high-rise fifth alarm fire. which I was in command at one Lincoln plaza in Manhattan in 1995, the high rise building experienced three elevator failures: one elevator containing firefighters became stuck in a shaft; another elevator took a firefighter above the fire, even after he pressed the button for the lobby on phase 2: and the third elevator at this fire was taken up to the fire floor by the call button and the car doors opened and the car was incinerated. Luckily no civilian or firefighter was inside. We need a safe phase two-elevator system for occupants of high-rise building and for firefighters in America.
11. The fire service needs a computerized- virtual- simulator for firefighting training. Twenty-five years ago an engineer friend told me about project he was designing. It was a large screen in a classroom auditorium and on the screen a large video of a burning high- rise building. As the fire burned the screen would display questions like; where do you place the fires hose line? Where to you positions you ladders? And what number of alarms do you need to control this fire? During the training session a new chief candidate stood at the podium in front of the large scene. His answers to the questions would be timed, and evaluated for correctness by chiefs and training officers sitting in the auditorium seats behind the trainee. I have seen a similar virtual simulator used for bringing a tanker in to the port of New York. I have seen a similar virtual simulator used for landing planes in an airport. I have never seen this project brought to reality by the fire service. The fire service needs a virtual simulator for training fire officer in high-rise and low-rise fires.
12. The fire service needs computerized dispatching that can warn first responding firefighters of the dangers in high- and low rise buildings. The WTC had lightweight steel bar truss joist floor construction that collapsed. The first responding firefighters did not receive a warning of this construction over the radio. The truss hazards: timber truss, the lightweight wood truss and the steel bar joist are proven dangers during fire. Firefighting has its normal dangers of fire, heat, smoke and toxic gas; we do not need additional surprise dangers like truss construction, propane gas storage and hazardous material. However, we cannot stop unusual construction and occupancy hazards in our community; but we can be notified of the unusual danger when responding, so we can alter our aggressive interior attack to a more defensive and safer operating procedure. To do this we need a computerized critical information dispatch system that warns first responders. Here the hazardous information and the locations discovered by firefighters while inspecting buildings are recorded in the computer. When an alarm is transmitted for this location the computer shows the location of and the type of hazards and most important mandates the safe operating procedures ordered by the chief. This information is given to first responder by radio before they arrive on the scene. We can not longer ask our firefighter to be the “miner’s canary”, that is the first to take casualties at fires, haz-mat emergencies and acts of terrorism. We can do better for the fire service of America.
Mr. Ridge you may wonder why the New York City firefighter has so many terrorism needs. The answer is the New York City Fire department has never received any federal money, or matching funds, as has some other city agencies. Every request for manpower and equipment from the fire chief must come out of the city’s operating budget. Also when the city is in financial difficulties, as it is today, budget people know one dollar cut from the fire department brings one dollar back to the city. Agencies that get 10 percent of their budget from the federal government will only give back to the city 90 cents on the dollar when budgets are cut. Firefighters need help.
Yours truly
Vincent Dunn, Deputy Chief FDNY (ret)