Council: Who's In Charge At Disasters?
Who's In Charge At Disasters?
by john toscano
Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Fire Department Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta insisted at last week's joint City Council hearing on emergency preparedness that a central command system is not necessary at a disaster of the dimensions of the September 11 terrorist attack.
But City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., Public Safety Committee chair, who conducted the joint hearing with Councilmember Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn), said after the October 8 session that Kelly and Scoppetta must work closely with Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Commissioner John Odermatt to specifically identify proper procedures in cases of major citywide disasters.
The post-hearing council statement from Clarke also pointed out, "As the McKinsey Report and the testimony before the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee last month revealed, interagency command, communication and coordination are crucial to any emergency response. Frequently mentioned among the concerns on September 11 was the lack of interagency coordination. I believe that the commissioners recognize our concern about responsibility and will follow up with our committees appropriately."
The statement also noted that OEM had become a full-fledged department last January 1 through a City Charter referendum.
At the October 8 joint hearing, the statement said, "The committees sought to investigate and clarify the new [OEM] department's structure and function. Within the next two months, the council will release its own report, identifying more specific areas of concern and improvement."
Responding to the September 11 attacks, police and firefighters set up separate command posts and there was little communication between them regarding ongoing developments or evacuation plans, according to the McKinsey Reports, which had been commissioned by the departments themselves. The reports also recommended a unified command over the various emergency agencies.
This same theme was repeated by others at the joint hearing. One speaker, Peter Gorman, Uniformed Fire Officers Association president, said both departments had performed heroically on September 11, but operated separately.
"Unless we address the ICS (Incident Command System) issues aggressively, we are doomed to repeat our failures of 9/11."
ICS is a nationally recognized model for multi-agency response and was recommended for use by the McKinsey report.
But responding to a question from Vallone Jr. at the joint hearing, Kelly supported the status quo.
"Police personnel are not qualified to direct fire personnel, and neither are fire personnel qualified to direct police," Kelly stated. He added later, "There is a danger of getting wrapped around the axle over who is in charge. These are fluid situations that go back and forth. The key is to work cooperatively."
Scoppetta in his testimony had outlined some steps taken to set up informal cooperation between the two agencies including a unit in which top officials from each department would be represented. He also spoke of joint training exercises and reported that his department will convert to radios wired into the Police Department communications system, enabling the two departments to communicate with each other more easily.
When Kelly was asked at one point what would happen if a disagreement occurred at a disaster site, he responded, "We would hope that common sense prevails."
Odermatt described the OEM function in emergency situations as a coordinator in which many different entities, such as state and federal agencies, are involved. He said the function of the OEM was "to pull together the agencies."
Odermatt, of Astoria, holds a high rank in the Police Department, where he has served for about 15 years. Immediately after the September 11 attacks, he was Deputy Director of OEM and handled the job of coordinating about 100 agencies during that crucial period. This included the search for bodies, furnishing the rescuers with supplies and food, coordinating EMS and hospital operations and dealing with survivors and the families of both survivors and victims. He was appointed OEM commissioner after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office.
The OEM headquarters had been in the World Trade Center. The facility was destroyed when a terrorist piloted plane crashed into one of the building. The loss of the headquarters was cited as a serious blow to smooth recovery operations. A new, modern emergency command center is now under construction in Brooklyn.
Vallone Jr. said that the joint committee report, including recommendations, will be made to the mayor in several months after another hearing is held on inter-agency preparedness and cooperation. The upcoming hearing will deal with the Fire Department radio system, which in the past has shown shortcoming in high-rise fires.