Public Safety & Justice

Battle of the Badges

Tense relations between police and fire departments, long a fact of life in many cities, are now emerging as a serious domestic- preparedness problem.
by | September 2005

"An airplane is falling on the company!"

"A what?"

"An airplane! An airplane!"

"An airplane hit your building?"

"Yeah, yeah, it hit the building. I need an ambulance, because one guy is hurt."

That was one of the stomach-churning calls made to emergency dispatchers in suburban New Jersey on a cold February morning earlier this year. A corporate jet had failed to take off from the Teterboro Airport and skidded across a busy highway in the middle of the morning rush hour before crashing into a warehouse.

Because of its proximity to New York City--Teterboro is just 12 miles west of midtown Manhattan--and its fleet of private jets, the airport is precisely the kind of facility that has worried counterterrorism experts since the 9/11 attacks. Yet the initial response to this aviation disaster was chaotic. The smallest municipality in New Jersey (population 18), Teterboro has no fire department of its own. Instead, it relies on neighboring jurisdictions for fire-fighting and law enforcement services. That makes things complicated under the best of circumstances. However, the possibility that the crash might be a terrorist incident brought large numbers of police officers to the scene--and ratcheted up the tensions.

First, came the Port Authority police with their mobile command post. Local fire and police rebuffed their efforts to take charge, pointing out that the incident was not occurring on Port Authority property. Then the Bergen County police showed up with their command post. Then the Bergen County Sheriff's Department appeared with its command post. Then came the New Jersey state police with, yes, their own command post. None of them were working together. As a result, some local fire fighters who left the scene briefly found that when they attempted to return to their job, they were barred from "the crime scene" or asked to sign back in.

Miraculously, no one was killed in what turned out to be an ice- related accident, and Teterboro muddled through. But the uncertainty over lines of command and protocols for operations hardly reflected a coordinated response. At the heart of the difficulty that morning was an intractable problem--tension between fire fighters and law enforcement officers.

For more than a century, competitive, sometimes strained, relations between police and fire departments have been the norm in many American cities. Indeed, the rivalry between the two public safety entities is one of the most enduring fault-lines in municipal government. To some extent, such tension is unavoidable. At the policy level, police officers and fire fighters compete for the same municipal dollars. Higher wages for one profession (usually the police) often come at the expense of the other. "The system puts us in an adversarial position," says Phoenix Police Commander T.J. Martin, "and if you've got a culture that lets it flourish, it continues to go and go."

For the most part, police and fire agencies work through these tensions. But when police and fire are called upon to work together in a crisis, all too often coordination has broken down--and turf wars have broken out. Among the most innovative police and fire chiefs, there's a growing awareness that the status quo is unacceptable, even dangerous, in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack or natural catastrophe, and that tabletop drills and management protocols aren't enough to overcome the animosity. "If you think dropping a bomb on a city is going to get people to hug and kiss and get along, I don't think it is," says Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini.

What's needed, he and other officials say, is a concerted and ongoing effort to bridge the divide between the two professions. "Weapons-of- mass-destruction responses," Brunacini argues, "will emerge from everyday local responses." A look at the New York metropolitan area underscores the perils of the status quo and illustrates what more healthy relationships might look like in the future. PAPER PLANS

The difficulty of coordinating emergency services operations is hardly an unrecognized problem. In recent years, the federal government has attempted to address the situation by requiring cities to manage emergencies using a management protocol called the Incident Command System. At the heart of ICS is the concept of a unified command where police, fire and other emergency services agencies meet to develop and oversee a coordinated response. By the end of this federal fiscal year, all cities will be required to have ICS plans in place before they can qualify for federal funds.

But formal agreements alone are not enough to overcome years of rivalry and distrust, as the experience of New York City has shown. The Big Apple is a singular place. No region of the country has been more affected by terrorism; none has a greater incentive to set fire and police relationships aright. With 36,000 police officers and 11,000 fire fighters, its scale and resources are unparalleled. However, greater resources have never meant better coordination. On the contrary, the NYPD and the FDNY have more overlapping services than most urban police and fire departments. Both are tradition-bound and aggressive about their turf. The result has been a uniquely tense relationship.

Since at least the late 1970s, New York's mayors have recognized that the strained relations between the two departments were a potentially serious problem and have tried but largely failed to rectify the situation. The administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was more aggressive than most. In July 2001, Giuliani updated a directive called "The Direction and Control of Emergencies in New York City." Its purpose was "to eliminate conflict among responding agencies which may have areas of overlapping expertise and responsibility"-- particularly the fire and police departments. The directive set forth a variety of scenarios and specified which agency would function as the "incident commander" in those circumstances. The Office of Emergency Management, itself created by Giuliani in 1996, was charged with serving as "the on-scene interagency coordinator." Two months later, on September 11, the new emergency management system got its first test.

By most accounts, cooperation was not as effective as it could have been. While noting that "to some degree the Mayor's directive for incident command was followed on 9/11," the 9/11 Commission nonetheless concluded that "response operations lacked the kind of integrated communications and unified response contemplated in the directive." An investigation by the National Institute for Standards and Technology found that FDNY and NYPD department chiefs "were not working together at the same command post, and that they did not formulate unified orders and directions for their departments."

The consequences of this failure in terms of lives lost have been hotly debated. In his memoirs, Giuliani defended establishing dual police-fire command posts to deal with the attack on the World Trade Center, asserting that given the circumstances there was no other practical course of action available. Many fire fighters believe that information from NYPD helicopters might have led to an earlier evacuation of fire fighters from the second tower. The 9/11 Commission itself concluded that the answer was ultimately unknowable. However, it left no doubt as the seriousness of the shortcoming: "If New York and other major cities are to be prepared for future terrorist attacks, different first-responder agencies must be fully coordinated," the commission report concluded.

Yet many experts believe the administration of current Mayor Michael Bloomberg has moved away from more effective coordination. In May 2004, the city adopted an emergency response plan that called for joint operations between police and fire departments rather than a unified command--a plan criticized by the 9/11 Commission. This April, the city unveiled its version of the ICS, dubbed the Citywide Incident Management system. CIMS shifted authority away from the fire department to the police department. Instead of entrusting police with responsibility for responding to crime scenes and vesting fire with responsibility for commanding response operations, CIMS allows the NYPD to make the initial determination on whether a hazardous materials incident involves a crime or terrorism. If it does, the NYPD is in charge. That decision angered the fire department and puzzled many fire experts. "I don't get it," says Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They have now split hazmat function down the middle. The police are in charge of assessment; fire is in charge of life safety... The duplication not only didn't get better, it got worse."

The Bloomberg administration has rejected these criticisms. Indeed, it has rejected the notion that there's a systematic coordination problem between the police and fire department at all. "Realize this. Police and fire every day work an excess of 100 to 200 incidents," says Joseph Bruno, the head of New York's Office of Emergency Management and former FDNY fire commissioner. "The overall level of cooperation is outstanding." The only area where New York "has had problems," says Bruno, "is communications."

That's a claim that astonishes Councilwoman Yvette Clarke, who chairs the city's Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee. "I share the belief that there were no coordination problems because there was no coordination," she says sarcastically. BUILDING NEW RELATIONSHIPS

Thirty miles north of Manhattan, in a conference room at the White Plains public safety building, a very different kind of police-fire relationship is being built. It's 9:15 on a Monday morning and a group of 20 or so public safety officers are gathered for a weekly Compstat meeting. It's the kind of meeting that now plays out in any number of American cities but for one thing--this Compstat session includes both police and fire officers.

At the head of the table sits the architect of this unusual arrangement, Frank Straub, White Plains' commissioner for public safety. Straub's determination to bring White Plains' police and fire departments together on a regular basis reflects his experiences on September 11, 2001. At the time, Straub, a veteran of several federal law enforcement agencies, was serving as executive deputy inspector general in the New York State Inspector General's office. His offices were only three blocks south of the World Trade Center complex. When the first plane hit the north tower, he, like many other law enforcement officers, hurried to the scene.

"I was saved by a fire truck when the second tower came down," Straub says quietly. "For me, it's a very real thing. I saw an awful lot of people--police, fire and civilians--die that day, needlessly in many cases."

Two weeks after 9/11, Straub joined the NYPD as deputy commissioner for training. He stayed with the department--moving over to serve as assistant commissioner of internal training for the counterterrorism bureau when Ray Kelly took over as commissioner--until the summer of 2002, when he accepted the job of public safety commissioner in White Plains.

"I knew a lot about emergency services, and this was very personal for me," says Straub. "We all were saying we couldn't let it happen again. The biggest thing for me is that unless you have fire and police [working together], you're looking at a disaster. No one agency can do it themselves"--not even the 36,000-officer NYPD.

When Straub arrived in White Plains, however, he found a familiar tension. "I really had two separate and distinct departments," says Straub. "and very rarely did they talk." Indeed, fire fighters had become so estranged from the previous public safety commissioner that they were even seeking their own freestanding department.

Straub set out to find areas where police and fire could act together. First, he moved their respective chiefs onto the same floor and into offices that are next to each other. Then he required both to participate in a weekly Compstat meeting. Finally, in order to demonstrate his commitment to the fire department, Straub went through the training to be certified as a fire fighter. He also has made a point of going in person to most fire scenes.

All of Straub's actions have been aimed at one thing: persuading fire and police officers to work together on a routine basis. One such area concerns safe housing. Every spring, hundreds if not thousands of immigrants move into affluent Westchester County for seasonal jobs. Many of them crowd into run-down boarding houses, which often fail to meet code. At Straub's initiative, White Plains police answering calls in these areas learned how to identify problems and report them to the fire department. Likewise, fire fighters have received training in how to look for telltale signs of gang activity, such as graffiti tags, and report them to the police. The two bureaus' elite rescue and emergency services units also have trained together on an increasingly regular basis.

"Every opportunity we get we keep putting them in the room together and making them work together," says Police Chief James Bradley. The goal is routine interaction. "You can break out a protocol sheet and say we've agreed to do this or that," he says, "but unless you're used to doing it at the level of daily execution, it doesn't work."

"It's the day-to-day things: Compstat meetings, safe housing, bar and restaurant inspections, accident calls or doing rescue off the side of a building together," says Straub. "That's what builds collaboration and cooperation, and that's what tears down the traditional 'go to hell' mentality."

Straub worries that that is what New York City is neglecting. "Fundamentally the problem when you look at New York City and probably other cities is there's not that baseline coordination and cooperation. Places like New York need to find small areas where they can work together on a daily basis," says Straub. OTHER MODELS

Straub's work in White Plains has been made easier by his organizational chart: As public safety commissioner, he has clear authority over both the fire and police bureaus. However, public safety departments of this sort are relatively uncommon. Nonetheless, other cities interested in improving police-fire relations have found ways to bridge bureaucratic divides.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the government in North Carolina's largest metropolitan area, has made a concerted effort to improve police-fire relations since the 1970s, when the county decided to situate its fire and police departments in the same building. That daily interaction, says Police Chief Darrell Stephens, "contributes a lot to what has happened on the street." The county also supports a special 90-person outfit--known as ALERT (Advanced Local Emergency Response Team)--that includes a mixture of fire fighters and police officers, as well as personnel from the FBI, EMS, the County Medical Examiner's Office and the Carolinas Medical Center. "We still have our moments," concedes Stephens, "but when they happen, we sit down and deal with it or develop a new protocol."

Phoenix has gone even further. There, in the months after 9/11, the police and fire departments teamed up to staff a unified Homeland Defense Bureau. It started out with six police officers and fire fighters. Today, it encompasses more than 100. A new utility tax will provide a dedicated source of funding for its operations. As in Charlotte, co-location is central to Phoenix's effort, although Police Commander T.J. Martin concedes that he took some flack from other officers when it was revealed that the bureau would be housed with the fire department.

"By virtue of co-locating, it's a lot easier to communicate," says Alan Brunacini, the fire chief. "It's a lot easier to use their expertise in a routine way. They see each other, go on calls. They like each other. I think there's a different dynamic when people are in a day-to-day way just closer."

"We train together, we eat together, we shoot the breeze. We play the 'what if' game a lot," adds Martin. In the process, the two departments have found that they rely on the integrated communications and operations of the Homeland Defense Bureau on a daily basis--and perform better as a result.

"When you start doing this, it's almost impossible to separate the two functions," says Brunacini. The goal, he notes, is not to combine functions but rather to make cooperation natural, almost reflexive. "There are things fire does best and another set of things police do best. When you can put those together, two and two is six."

John Buntin
John Buntin  |  staff writer
jbuntin@governing.com  | 

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