Improve FDNY radio communications
The Fire Department of New York and the New York Police Department asked McKinsey & Co. for an investigation, an evaluation and recommendations in connection with their rescue response to the fires and building collapses at the New York World Trade Center caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
The fact that they asked individually means they didn’t feel the need for even a veneer of inter-departmental cooperation. And the reports themselves blame the lack of cooperation for some aspects of the rescue effort that could have been improved if the two departments had worked more closely together.
McKinsey recommended greater use of the Incident Command System, a model for controlling emergency responses that involve multiple agencies.
But ICS could place a fire department official in command of the police, or vice versa, something both the FDNY and NYPD resist at the highest level — their commissioners.
Fire and police department officials normally have good reasons for doing things the way they do. For example, they use radio communications differently, and the technology they need for their communications differs.
The McKinsey report for the FDNY pointed out that the fire department’s radio technology proved inadequate to handle the volume of radio calls and to send signals into the higher levels of the World Trade Center towers consistently, reliably and verifiably.
On the other hand, NYPD’s radio system, even as it was damaged in the terrorist attacks, proved adequate to that department’s tasks.
Here’s what will be difficult for the two departments, when it comes to radio communications and McKinsey’s recommendations. McKinsey said that FDNY should “leverage” NYPD’s radio system to support fire department communications in locations where coverage from the FDNY system may be lacking.
The expected fire department deployment of UHF radios that could be programmed with NYPD frequencies will make such leveraging technically possible.
But what’s technically possible isn’t always practical. In this case, practicality would involve planning at the management level and training at the firefighter level that may be difficult to achieve.
Moreover, the two departments’ commissioners would have to want to share communications capabilities when sharing might better serve the response to a large-scale emergency, and it isn’t clear that they do.
Keeping in mind that funding remains a key concern in a city facing a huge budget deficit, FDNY and NYPD leadership should pursue the resources for change, and then act to improve the fire department’s radio communications capability.