Never Again: Today's FDNY Is Stronger and Better Prepared

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2011-09-06

Never Again: Today's FDNY Is Stronger and Better Prepared

When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, it was the worst terrorist attack to occur on American soil. In responding to the tragedy that took the lives of 2,823 people, the Fire Department of the City of New York showed extreme heroism in safely evacuating more than 25,000 people.

Despite losing 343 firefighters in the aftermath of the attack, the FDNY used all its resources to bring the situation under control, taxing the department's communications and technology assets to the limit. The FDNY and city leaders swore that would never happen again, so they determined to create state-of-the-art communications and IT systems.

As a first step, the FDNY commissioned McKinsey & Co. to evaluate the department's response to the 9/11 attack. The firm made several recommendations, including many designed to help the FDNY improve its communications and technology systems.

For instance, because of communications problems on the scene during 9/11, firefighters were not able to communicate with others, and commanders on the scene were unaware of what was going on outside the towers. Moreover, the collapse of the buildings destroyed an incident command post on the scene and weakened the command-and-control structure.

According to the McKinsey statement, "The response of firefighters and EMS [Emergency Medical Services] personnel to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was unprecedented in scale and scope. More than 200 fire units responded, approximately half of all units in the city. More than 100 ambulances in the emergency services system responded, about 30 percent of the total available. This massive response taxed the FDNY's efforts to manage its personnel and equipment in several ways."


Never Again: Today's FDNY Is Stronger and Better Prepared

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The FDNY took the McKinsey recommendations to heart and immediately began implementing new systems. As a direct recommendation of the McKinsey report, the FDNY implemented the Fire Department Operations Center. The FDOC primarily monitors incidents in the city, but it also has regional, national and global capabilities. It provides the department and its staff with situational awareness, information and intelligence for incident command and control.

At the launch of the FDOC in 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "The expansion and development of the new Fire Department Operations Center is a critical new management tool for fire commanders in the event of a large-scale disaster or simultaneous, multiple emergencies around the city. Through projects like this, we're reaffirming our commitment to providing our first responders with the advanced resources they need to protect our city and keep all New Yorkers safe."

The FDOC has been operational for more than six years and is presently going through a technology refresh. It includes workstations, servers via virtualization, and audio/visual and radio communications equipment, said Frank Gribbon, the deputy commissioner of the FDNY.

"We are light-years away from where we were 10 years ago in terms of having a command center to tap into," Gribbon said.

After the technology refresh, Gribbon estimates the $17 million central command and information hub will become about a $20 million facility. Located at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, the FDOC is staffed by uniformed personnel who monitor fire and EMS activity across the five NYC boroughs.

The facility features at least 80 computers and 52,000 feet of network cable. The FDOC shares updates with numerous commanders in the field and provides important data needed to fight fires, rescue civilians, properly deploy personnel and protect firefighters from potentially harmful substances.

In addition, the FDOC has access to the Autodesk Crisis Command, which provides layers of maps that show the locations of nearby schools, hospitals, subway lines and other crucial data. It also manages the Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system.

One of the issues with 9/11 was that the lack of communication led to the over-dispatching of ambulances. The AVL includes GPS tracking of fire and EMS first-responder vehicles, which are displayed on maps color-coded to their current status. The tracking and movement of vehicles are based on specific cadences assigned to a specific status.

"For years we fought fires in a very traditional way," Gribbon said. "We fought the fire at the scene and handled everything on-site. During 9/11, because the buildings fell, we lost everything at the scene. Now we have to have a system that looks back."

Gribbon said the FDNY is working toward a system that will provide firefighters with on-the-scene computers that will allow the on-site commander to log into the computer, get details of the emergency and have that information wirelessly fed back to the operations center.

"Before, we had a magnetic board where we were literally moving magnets around to show where our units were," Gribbon said. "Now, we have an electronic log of what's going on at an incident, and it's wirelessly sent back to us."

Moreover, Gribbon said the FDNY now has access to live helicopter feeds to give aerial views of fires to firefighters on the ground-something that was unavailable during 9/11. "We also have floor plans and building info to tap into, and we have connections to different databases, maps, photos and other information from different agencies," he said. "None of that existed 10 years ago."

Automated Building Inspection

Another major change for the FDNY is its Coordinated Building Inspection and Data Analysis System (CBIDAS). The department has completed two phases of a four-phase initiative, which will provide an automated, state-of-the-art building inspection system that will be based on a risk model. It includes a data repository of building inspections information that enables the FDNY to analyze critical information to help improve fire inspections.

CBIDAS, which IBM developed for the FDNY, collects and shares in real time data that potentially can prevent fires and protect firefighters and other first responders when a fire occurs, said Michael O'Boyle, managing director for New York State for IBM Public Sector. The system uses business intelligence technologies, including predictive modeling and advanced data analytics, to anticipate fire exposures, analyze possible impacts and improve processes that can minimize risks, such as collecting and disseminating data on building inspections, permits and violations.

In addition to integrating and mining disparate databases within the FDNY, CBIDAS enables better communication, information sharing and coordination of fire inspection and site/building structure information within FDNY bureaus, and between FDNY bureaus and other city agencies-such as the Department of Buildings, Department of City Planning and Department of Environmental Protection-and contractors.

"There is nothing like it out there," Gribbon said of CBIDAS. "This can dramatically improve our field inspection program."


Upgraded Computer Network

Other technological changes since Sept. 11, 2001, include the Broadband Modem VPN Project. This project upgraded the fire department's citywide computer network (from dial-up lines) by providing 565 fire and EMS locations with high-speed access to the FDNY computer network via broadband modem services from Time Warner, Verizon and Cable-vision. These locations now benefit from higher data transmission speeds systemwide, more flexible site deployment options, greater fault tolerance and improved performance of applications.

The FDNY's Bureau of Technology Development and Systems (BTDS) has implemented a distributed Network Operations Center (NOC) to monitor, model and manage the IT infrastructure departmentwide. This system discovers, collects data and reports on the "health" and trends of IT devices, networks, servers and applications. This permits the staff to proactively intercept problems and diagnose incidents.

Also implemented since 9/11 is the Electronic Firefighter Accountability System (EFAS), an application used to register mayday calls from distressed firefighters.

Once a distressed member depresses the emergency alert button on the handheld walkie-talkie, the EFAS displays the firefighter's name and assigned radio information, notifying those on the scene that a fellow firefighter needs assistance.

This application currently resides on the Division and Battalion Chiefs' Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) located within their respective vehicles. However, portable EFAS units are in the process of being implemented.

The FDNY also implemented a BlackBerry Service Distribution project, which supplies mobile devices to key agency staff,
providing them with remote access to emails, files, notifications and the Internet. After deployment and the BlackBerry Enterprise Server was stabilized, the issuance of the physical devices was turned over to the Bureau of Communications, since it provides cellular device issuance. The BTDS continues the administration and support of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

In addition, the FDNY upgraded its intranet and Internet capabilities. The iterative design and development of the FDNY intranet allow its members to access safety and training materials, forms, and other critical information more effectively and with greater ease.

The site has evolved to accommodate the merger of fire and EMS services into a single unified department by streamlining the previous separate intranet "sites" within a single unified design paradigm utilizing "communities."

Along with the redesign, many new intranet communities were added. These include the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness (CTDP) and the Security Awareness and Bureau of Training, which gives employees current information about training and safety protocols.

Additionally, many new Web-based applications were designed and engineered to better promote safety and disaster preparedness, according to Gribbon. These include an Events Calendar, Spare Handie-Talkie Tracking and Near Miss, to name a few.

The FDNY also made enhancements to its public Internet Website in order to provide New York City residents and businesses with content pertaining to fire safety education, disaster preparedness, news and events.

As Deputy Commissioner Gribbon stated earlier, the FDNY is "light-years away from where we were 10 years ago."

eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft can be reached at


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